Thursday, November 4, 2010

Why bipartisanship is overrated

Two-thousand eight was the year of bipartisanship. John McCain was bipartisan, but not as bipartisan as Barack Obama (unless, to be fair, you were a Palin follower, in which case Obama was the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin, or possibly Satan himself, descended to earth, or risen from its fiery bowels, to lead us all to socialism). Congressmen and –women shouted their bipartisan credentials from the rooftops. California made its own contribution to the mania sweeping the country—Arnold Schwarzeneggar, if you recall, proclaimed himself post-partisan! Joe Liberman was bipartisan—receiving all of the benefits that came from caucusing with the Democrats whilst endorsing a man with whom he had only four words in common—I-R-A-Q. Those were heady days.

Since then, Obama has learnt the perils of bipartisanship, if not the lessons. McCain has forgotten that it was a label he once craved (maybe he left his bipartisanship in the same attic where he’s misplaced his ‘maverick’ streak). The Republicans have lost their enthusiasm for the idea...unless, that is, the Democrats are failing to embrace it (having won massive majorities which outside of the medieval Senate would be a governing mandate), in which case it proves a useful weapon on which to impale their political opponents (not very bipartisan that!). And the Democrats (as with so much else) seem slightly confused about what they’re supposed to think.

I expect, however, that after Tuesday’s vote, we’ll hear the term being bantered about with abandon, by Republicans, newly empowered and intent on forcing Democrats to accept government intervention on behalf of the wealthy and corporately irresponsible. And Democrats will use the term as a way of staving off Republicans’ destructive tendencies.

In spite of the mania, the way we think about bipartisanship is more than a little strange in some respects. Working together is great, but assumes that both sides genuinely want to participate. And then there’s the problem of legislative compromise.

Because bipartisanship is not just about working has been transformed into the notion that the best idea is always mid-way between theoretical versions of Left and Right; that all ideas are equally good; and that people should live with the mangled political consequences of legislators feeling good about reaching across an imaginary aisle. People immediately to either side of this fantasy divide have more in common with each other than with the other wings of their respective parties, and yet they maintain the fiction that a solution based on mashing policies together in a political blender is the best solution.

The outcome is bears as little relation to principled law-making as it does to the actual needs of the people for whom the legislation is supposedly created. It empowers, quite frankly, the gutless, the fence-sitters and the opportunists (whether the likes of Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe or Abel Maldonado). And it means that we never have coherent legislation: most of what Congress passes is cobbled together in a bill with a misleading title, which is then filled with irrelevant riders. Bipartisan legislation gets votes not because of its merits, but because it becomes a black hole for people to throw small pet projects into. And because representatives are often not voting on the fundamental issue (but instead on their riders), we never get the up-or-down vote on critical issues.

It is political horse-trading at its absolute worst, and the next budget will undoubtedly be a good example of that: there will be no comprehensive attack on our economic woes and the sets of decisions that caused them. Rather, each constituency that howls loudly enough will be thrown a bone, and the result will be a travesty where policy is concerned.

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