Friday, November 5, 2010

The Toxic Bipartisan Ideal

Some facts:

- George W. Bush became president in 2001, at a time of unprecedented economic prosperity.

- Despite also inheriting a budget surplus that provided him with an excellent opportunity to reduce our deficit, George W. Bush instead proposed a $1.35 trillion tax cut for the wealthy.

- His measure passed with the support not only of the entire Republican Party, but also 28 Congressional Democrats.

Some more facts:

- Barack Obama became president in 2009, at a time when the economy was spiraling downward in a crisis more severe than any faced in more than seventy years.

- He proposed a stimulus plan that was less than half as expensive as the Bush tax cuts, coming it at only $500 billion. As a sop to Congressional Republicans, he also added almost $300 billion in further tax cuts.

- Obama's measure passed but did not receive any Republican support.

Oh, and one more fact:

- Unemployment rose after Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy began to take effect. Although unemployment had been growing since Obama took office (due to the onset of a recession that had preceded his inauguration), it stopped rising once his stimulus took effect (although, had it been even larger, it also would have been to decline).

These facts are noteworthy not merely for the obvious lesson they teach about economic policy, but also for the message they should send perceptive liberals about the nature of partisanship. For the better part of the last decade, progressives have been admonished by some of their most influential and popular leaders to reach across the aisle, to work with their conservative adversaries, to make concessions in the name of good faith and creating a spirit of unity in this country.

One can see this message being preached as far back as 2004, when then-State Senator Barack Obama told the Democratic National Convention:

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.

It was a message repeated as recently as last week, when comedian and voice-of-a-generation Jon Stewart said the following to the largest political rally of 2010:

Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution and racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day.

It is a message that liberals have worked diligently to heed. Even though President Obama knew that any stimulus package smaller than $2 trillion would fail to bring about an economic recovery, he preemptively reduced the size of his proposed legislation in the hope of winning Republican support. Similarly, when he decided to dedicate the first year of his presidency toward the issue of health care reform, he jettisoned clause after clause that he knew would make his bill even stronger - from a public option to federal funding for abortions - so as to win over right-wing adversaries. Again and again liberals made it clear that there were no concessions they wouldn't make, no outstretched hands that they wouldn't offer, in the name of working together. They would extend the presence of our troops in Afghanistan, refuse to adequately roll back Bush's infringement of civil liberties for suspected terrorists, oppose federal courts that tried to extend government benefits to homosexual couples, talk tough about fighting state measures that would try to legalize marijuana... anything at all to make it clear that they were willing to work with Republicans.

The problems with this approach soon became manifest:

1) By making compromises in the name of bipartisan solidarity, Obama and Democrats like him deliberately chose to pursue policies that, in varying degrees, were inferior to the ones that would best serve America.

2) Just as noteworthy, their efforts consistently failed to win Republican support. Like the lovelorn suitor who buys gifts for the beautiful girl-next-door, delights when she accepts them, and then blinds himself to the fact that she mocks him behind his back, Democrats are unwilling to recognize that Republicans have not only refused to give them the credit they deserve for trying to find middle ground, but insist on referring to Democrats as left-wing radicals no matter how often they make it clear that they are moving to the center.

Republicans, meanwhile, know better than Democrats. Starting with the Reagan Revolution in 1980 and continuing through the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, the GOP has masterfully adopted a two-pronged strategy when it comes to policymaking and political wrangling:

1) They move in ideological lockstep, from the President of the United States through the Senate and all the way down to the House of Representatives. Although some slight variations are permitted in rare individual instances, on every issue of consequence Republicans make a point of being unanimous both in the policies they champion and in the tactics they use in order to implement them.

2) They take no prisoners. If offered an opportunity to receive exactly what they want, they pounce on it, avail themselves of it, and then reap the maximum political dividends for it by promoting it to their constituents. If they are not allowed to receive exactly what they want, they push, pull, shout, and bully whoever stands in their way (almost always the Democrats), thereby allowing them to crow in triumph if the Democrats cave and thus allow them to have their way and to shriek about Democratic radicalism and hyperpartisanship if they are thwarted.

When liberals read about the Republican strategy as outlined above, they are invariably filled with moral disgust and outrage. These sentiments are certainly understandable, but they overlook the main message they should take away from this... i.e., that from a political perspective, the Republicans are absolutely right.

Outlandish you say? Abhorrent you assert?

Let us look at the facts. In the past thirty years, since Republicans began implementing their agenda in 1980, they have:

- Exploded the budget deficit through trillions of dollars of tax cuts for the wealthy.

- Lined the pockets of their big business contributors by forcing through countless corporate deregulations, decimating the power of labor unions, and taking a laissez-faire approach to Wall Street.

- Continued to slash social welfare and other programs that help the working poor.

- Expanded the power of the military-industrial complex by spending unprecedented sums on hardware, weapons, and other programs and engaging in unnecessary military campaigns from Nicaragua to Iraq.

- Increased the power of the federal government to unprecedented levels through measures such as the USA Patriot Act.

- Given dangerous influence to the Christian Right on issues ranging from drug policy and the teaching of religion in schools to dispensing foreign aid and abortion rights.

What do Democrats have to show for ourselves within this same period of time?

- A stimulus package that prevented today's economic catastrophe from worsening... but which, at the same time, did not allow for a recovery due to the concessions we made to win Republican support.

- A health care reform bill that provides insurance coverage to 32 million Americans, reduces the budget deficit by more than $1.3 trillion over the next twenty years, and ends countless injustices perpetrated by private insurers, from denying coverage to individuals with preexisting medical conditions to charging higher premiums on the basis of gender or health history. At the same time, millions will remain without quality health insurance because Obama, in the name of bipartisanship, made countless concessions to his Republican foes.

Of course, the most salient feature to be gleaned from this listing of Republican and Democratic accomplishments of the past thirty years is that, while Republicans have won election after election based on the harm they've done, Democrats were soundly defeated as thanks for the good they've provided. That is because, while Republicans have always stood proudly behind their policies (even when they are harmful), Democrats refuse to trumpet their own achievements, out of fear of looking boastful and thus losing potential conservative support, even when our accomplishments have been beneficial.

In short, when it comes to taking the moral high ground in political discourse, Democrats have the Republicans beat by a wide mile. When, on the other hand, it comes to actually getting things done, Republicans have far more to show off than we do.

The lesson we must learn from this is obvious:

It is time to bring an end to the Crusade for Bipartisanship. For more than thirty years Democrats have, partially out of idealism and partially out of what they perceive to be a pragmatic necessity, striven to find a halfway point between the policies they know to be right and the conservatism upon which Republicans insist. Despite being spurned by the right-wing and punished at the polls, we have yet to recognize the utter failure of this technique. This would be bad enough if our party alone was paying the price; it is made far worse by the fact that America is also suffering as a result of it. Because liberals conceded to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, the foundations of the Great Recession were laid; because they conceded to congressional Republicans in 2009, the measures needed to get us out of it weren't implemented. Because of a left-wing conciliatory attitude, women have a harder time than ever insuring their reproductive rights, millions have needlessly died in Iraq and other nations, our budget has reached catastrophic levels of debt, and civil liberties - from those of the pot user to those of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay - are being rolled back.

Because of our slavish adherence to the toxic bipartisan ideal, we have spent thirty years smugly patting ourselves on the back for being so ethical... and ignoring the dagger that has been planted into our spines. Even worse, we've allowed our front to be set on fire.

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