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The Welcome Death of Bipartisanship

Politics is supposed to be about disagreements.

By Petrarch  |  February 26, 2010

For a long time now, the idea of "bipartisanship" cooperation between Republicans and Democrats has been something of a Holy Grail in American politics.  George W. Bush was elected on a promise to be "a uniter, not a divider" as he had been while Governor of Texas; he was roundly reamed when his administration didn't quite pan out that way.  Barack Obama, too, ran on a platform of pragmatic cooperation, yet we see that his signature bills have passed (or not) on basically party-line votes.

One single vote from the other party does not "bipartisanship" make.  Watching bills being formed is a famously nauseating experience; when every single vote is The Critical One, the horsetrading and out-and-out bribery makes American voters feel like echoing Oliver Cromwell's address to the Rump Parliament:

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

Indeed, the recent blizzard which shut down the Federal Government for a week formed a welcome respite from the mudslinging and infighting.  How are you supposed to run a country this way?  Has it always been this bad?

No, it hasn't; but the reasons why are not the ones you read in the paper.

Tempests in Teapots

It's often forgotten, but our nation was forged not just by clash of arms but by clash of philosophies in the Continental Congress and Constitutional Conventions.  The differences between the various state groupings dwarfed what we see today: should the nation permit slavery, or ban it?  Should slaves be taxed, or affect representation?  Should military power be vested in Congress or a single executive?  The genius of our Founders is that they negotiated compromises on every essential issue so that all thirteen very diverse colonies could come to agreement.

What's more, they didn't just keep their arguments to themselves.  The Federalist Papers were a long series of articles carefully explaining the new Constitution and arguing as to why it was a good idea.  Less known but equally important, the Anti-Federalist Papers recorded the arguments of those opposed.  The American people were able to read both, reach their own conclusions based on the argument, and inform their representatives of their feelings.

Once that agreement was reached, it held pretty well for many decades.  There were disagreements, such as between Jefferson and Adams over foreign policy, but they were resolved peacefully through the ballot box.

The overall atmosphere of what we see as comity was partly because the federal government had so little power and was involved in so few things: the ordinary American could easily go through his entire life and never have dealings with any arm of the federal government other than the Post Office.  The states and local towns were where almost all the real power lay.

Slavery was too big a problem to be resolved at that level, or by political means at all.  Abraham Lincoln dedicated his life to saving the Union and ultimately freeing the slaves.  In so doing, he grew the power and authority of the federal government far beyond what it had ever been before, breaking new ground for central control, and creating many more issues for Congress to fight over - which they did in the last half of the 19th century, even physically.

Of Comity and Hegemony

As ancient as many of our politicians are, they aren't that old; our institutional political memory doesn't go back any further than Franklin Roosevelt.  The twin crises of the Great Depression and World War II forged a somewhat unique political situation: by the end of FDR's long, long tenure, most opposition to his agenda had fizzled out or met in the middle.  There really was a national consensus regarding progressive liberalism, the growth of government, and a strong national defense.

The monolithic victory of liberal statism led to William F. Buckley's 1950's rise to fame.  He is called the founder of modern conservatism for a good reason: when first he came to public attention, there were no other national figures who argued for anything that we would recognize as conservatism today.  For decades before and decades following, the comity of Congress was easily preserved by the simple expedient of Democrat and liberal hegemony.

Recently, longtime Sen. Evan Bayh retired, saying that he didn't like his job anymore because the combat was too intense.  "It was better in my father's time," quoth he.  Yes, it most certainly was if you were a Democrat as the Washington Examiner pointed out:

...In the 1960s Washington was a one-party capital in ways that it is not now. When Dirksen put his arm around the elder Bayh's shoulder, there were 64 Democrats in the Senate. The session before, from 1965 to 1967, there were 68 Democrats. In fact, for the decade from 1959 to 1969, there were never fewer than 64 Democrats in the Senate. The party controlled the House by similarly huge margins...

Of course there's a lot less disagreement if everyone who matters agrees with you, but that is not the way a democracy is supposed to work.  If we all are in agreement on all major issues, why do we even bother to hold elections?

The whole reason we have elections and political parties is because we don't agree; there are different ways to do things and the candidates have to make their cases to the voters so, once elected, then can try to put their points of view into practice.  A Congress where everybody pulls in the same direction is no Congress at all.

That said, even when there were vast disagreements in the past, there were also sources of bipartisan agreement.  America-Firsters may not have wanted us to get involved in "Europe's war", but once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on us, every American agreed that we needed to finish the job in total victory.  Great chunks of FDR's New Deal were highly controversial, and many were found unConstitutional, but on the basic idea of providing employment for the unemployed there was consensus right across the board.  Regardless of the party, most Americans pretty much agreed on what America was and ought to be.

Out Of Many... Even More?

That is not true today.  Consider the current debate over health care reform.  There is not one single person in politics anywhere, from President on down to dogcatcher, who thinks that our current way of handling health care is perfect just the way it is.  Quite the contrary: we all agree it's a complete mess.

Why, then, can't we fix it?  Because the directions the two parties want to go are exact opposites.

Democrats believe that our problems are caused by too little government involvement in providing health care; they want to slap tighter restrictions on what health insurance companies can do, force them to accept anyone no matter how sick, increase government funding for the poor and not-quite-so-poor, and ideally, someday have a Single Payer System like England and Canada where the government pays all doctors and everybody gets care without having to pay for it directly.

Republicans, in stark contrast, believe that our problems are caused by government interference in what ought to be a free market.  Health insurance is expensive because most people get it from their employers and thus have little control over what plan is picked; individuals don't pay their doctor bills and thus have no idea of what might be cheaper treatment options; and, of course, the incessant regulatory mandates and legal liabilities drive up costs and lead to worthless "defensive medicine".

Any solution offered by one party is going to be seen by the other party, not merely as useless, but as making the problem worse.  There is not one single policy that everybody can agree on as a good idea.  Even the obvious and demonstrably helpful tort reform falls foul of the malodorous fact that trial lawyers donate vast sums to Democrats.

Same for taxation.  Democrats look at our deficit and think, "We need to raise taxes to cover the bills."  Republicans look at the same facts and think, "We need to cut taxes so that the economy will grow, thus raising the amount of taxes collected and covering the bills."  It's a historical fact that the latter worked perfectly under Reagan and John F. Kennedy, whereas the higher taxes of Obama and many blue states have simply led to reduced economic activity and lower receipts.  Facts don't matter; it's an article of faith.

We could go on line by line down each issue and find the same diametrical opposites.  Republicans want to drill for American oil and natural gas; Democrats think we should tax to death if not outlaw fossil fuels altogether.  Republicans want parents and children to have the ability to pick whatever school they'd like to attend, public, private, or religious; Democrats do all they can to throw kids out of successful private schools and back into failing public schools so that their union allies can skim more taxpayer billions.

The two parties don't even agree anymore on supporting our troops.  If you think we shouldn't be fighting in a particular country, it's legitimate to argue that we should surrender and bring our boys home.  (Stupid and un-American perhaps, but legitimate).

What is not legitimate is to try to force the President's hand by refusing to fund military supplies for our soldiers currently in combat.  Yet that's what Democrats like John Murtha tried to do to Bush and even today many Democrats are angry that Obama is continuing the war in Afghanistan.  If we cannot all, as Americans, agree that we ought to win wars instead of losing them, how could you possibly expect us to agree on anything else?

The devastating wreckage wrought by multiculturalism is beyond the scope of this article, but the more that people identify themselves as members of a sub-group rather than Americans, the less we'll have in common and the less agreement will be possible.  When an American Muslim soldier can shoot down his own fellow soldiers in cold blood after giving a public Powerpoint presentation saying that's what Muslims ought to do, and nobody dared do anything about him for fear of being "Islamophobic", then we are no longer "one nation" in any meaningful way.

Up until recently Maj. Hasan had every right and opportunity to vote for politicians who reflected his warped views.  Is it any wonder that some of our politicians happily do things which in an earlier age would have been called treason?

The American people think they want bipartisanship, because that's what the media constantly tells them they want.  Yet there will never be a more bipartisan guy than Sen. John McCain, and he was squashed like a bug when he ran for President.  In stark contrast, Ronald Reagan recalled his 1980 victory thus:

Four years ago we raised a banner of bold colors-no pale pastels[emphasis added]

There was nothing bipartisan about the Gipper.  Everybody knew exactly what he believed in and why - and he went on to not only win the 1984 election in a landslide, but change the country's political culture in a way that lasted for decades.

No, Americans don't necessarily want friendly politicians who get along with everybody.  They want a leader who knows what he believes and who can convince them why to believe in it too.

Whoever has the political guts and strong foundation to come out with a full-throated defense of American tradition, history, culture, and strength, will not only sweep the board in 2012, but with luck will carry a whole new Congress with him.

The bleat of "bipartisanship!" can then be seen for what it is: a Trojan horse for still more statism and ever decreasing liberty.  Good riddance!