The case against bipartisanship


The concept of finding common ground and compromising to achieve the same goal is a beautiful thing. In a polarizing political climate that includes so much hatred and discontent with government, bipartisanship seems like the perfect storm that will revive the public\’s faith with a political system that barely includes any civil discourse.

\"ObamaStriving for bipartisanship is clearly a noble goal. However, actually achieving it is an absolute fantasy, it\’s a scam, and expecting the legislative results of bipartisanship to be especially positive for average citizens is unheralded.

Bipartisanship as defined as a political situation in which opposing political parties compromise to achieve political goals is so unrealistic that it is unhealthy to our current form of Democracy and completely irresponsible for which to strive.

At a time when most people believe that a recessionary period is the perfect time to strive for fiscal austerity, people also believe that a time of crises is the perfect time to aim for bipartisanship. I will leave the former notion to economists Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein. A time of crises, however, is the worst possible moment to find common ground for the purposes of achieving political goals.

I would argue that striving for bipartisanship is not only bad for promoting general welfare (during a growth recession), but it\’s bad politics as well. Of course, with unemployment stubbornly high, public policy matters more than political strategy. Let\’s look into exactly how working towards bipartisanship failed \’main street\’ over the past two years, in the order that the major legislation was passed.

The stimulus package (early 2008) was a recovery-spending bill of $787B that can be broadly broken down into three parts. The first 280B was a diverse package of taxcuts that ended up giving 95% of Americans tax relief and created tax credits for small businesses. About $300B was designed to provide relief to states which targeted costly programs such as Medicaid and saving public sector jobs, such as police officers and teachers. Only $200B was actually spent on economic stimulus, which includes \’shovel-ready\’ projects, investment in the fields of health and science, and various infrastructure projects.

Only about 60 percent of the Obama plan consists of public spending. The rest consists of tax cuts — and many economists were skeptical about how much these tax cuts, especially the tax breaks for business, would actually do to boost spending. Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center summed it up in the title of a recent blog posting: “Lots of buck, not much bang.”

We now know that the only reason such major tax cuts were included in the stimulus was for the purpose of attracting Republican votes. After all, the GOP is supposed to be the party that \’keeps your taxes low\’, and never taxes and spends. To sum up what could be a long rant on a frustrating conclusion, Congress wasted $300B of taxpayer money in the form of unnecessary tax breaks (which were supposed to have a multiplier effect) to achieve a sliver of glorious bipartisanship. Also, $200B of the stimulus as originally proposed (for more infrastructure) was shaved off by Senate Republicans, who didn\’t vote for the finished product.

That\’s only one example of the Obama Administration and Democrats cowering to the misperception that bipartisanship actually matters in regards to the success of public policy. The stimulus ended up passing with three Republican votes.

Now, the Democratic majority could have learned its lesson from the stimulus and moved on to fundamentally reform a broken healthcare system. Instead, a year of intensely negative debate on healthcare in Congress led to the inclusion of 90 Republican amendments to a moderate piece of legislation that provided the skeleton for a few strong insurance reforms. By the time the bill was passed, a public option had been stripped, the discussion for single-payer was silenced, and not a single Republican in Congress voted in favor.

A few months into the debate, Howard Dean approached the healthcare issue similarly to how President Bush approached \’across the board\’ tax cuts. He advised using reconciliation to pass the bill before the corporate-controlled media destroys a positive compilation of desperately needed reforms. Democrats waited for the longest legislative year in recent memory to slip before eventually using Dean\’s strategy to pass what eventually turned into the second coming of Bob Dole\’s healthcare proposal in 1994.

Even though Democrats included 90 Republican-proposed amendments in the bill, called a special \’bipartisan\’ summit to discuss the bill, debated the bill\’s contents for a full year, and then created (and passed) a centrist final product, not a single Republican voted for healthcare reform. The conclusion? Bipartisanship is an unworthy goal from the perspective of an average American, who still has to deal with massive insurance premium hikes. That same American is also stuck with private insurance, and doesn\’t have the choice to opt for a cheaper government health package.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform package is another perfect example of bipartisanship failing to wield any positive results for average citizens. The bill that was originally quite aggressive would eventually become a cosmetic, inept and degenerate piece of legislation that lacks any truly substantive reforms that can protect main street and individual investors–but it didn\’t make that transformation by accident.

In an effort to buy the votes of Senators like Blanche Lincoln, George Voinovich and Ben Nelson, new regulation on derivatives and caps on excessive leveraging were scrapped. The legislation is just too weak to prevent average Americans from being shafted by the financial system. Banks have three years to implement any changes from the Dodd-Frank law and then another two years, if requested, and then can apply to the government for another two years; a total of seven years before anything has to happen. Bank lobbyists will change this law to the bankers’ liking over the next seven years.

The goal of bipartisanship, or in this final case, the weakening of badly-needed reforms to pick up the votes of corporatists within the Democratic Party, ended up failing ordinary Americans. Case in point, working towards bipartisanship and sacrificing policy (that was promised) to achieve it simply does not benefit anyone. Two opposing sides don\’t necessarily have two compelling arguments.

How all of these attempts to compromise failed for the Democrats isn\’t as evident as what the House turnover rate showed it to be. Interestingly, the electorate claims it wants an atmosphere that promotes bipartisanship in government. One could even make the argument that Bill Clinton won a second term in 1996 because he worked with Republicans to pass welfare reform and reducing capital gains taxes, therefore being bipartisan. However, this \’bipartisanship\’ wasn\’t actually good for the public at all, and it had no effect on how people cast their ballots.

Clinton experienced a \’Republican revolution\’ in 1994 that would provide him with a political nemesis in Newt Gingrich (formerly Speaker of the House). Not only did gridlock contain what could have been a more successful presidency on the grounds of progressive policy, but the electorate didn\’t care that the government shut down for 15 months. The electorate didn\’t even notice that a bipartisan welfare reform bill was passed that left poor people even worse off than before. It didn\’t see that a corporatist Congress was working with Clinton to increase the power of the financial system and reduce regulation that would ultimately lead to a huge housing bubble in 2008.

The economy under Clinton was peaking, technology stocks soared and unemployment was low. People had jobs, and they wanted a divided government rather than one party control (in this case, Republican control). Bipartisanship didn\’t have anything to do with Clinton easily winning reelection and enjoying high popularity.

If President Obama follows Clinton\’s lead and actually believes the notion that bipartisanship keeps the electorate happy, he will be making a huge mistake. We\’ve seen that policy has been crippled by his attempts to reach across the aisle and compromise, but the political repercussions could be terrible for his reelection. Republicans are far more energized and poised to retake the White House in 2012 than in 1996, and their choices of candidates are much stronger than in the \’90s. The GOP has also been more vocal in expressing their intent to reclaim the White House from a \’socialist\’.

The public has historically voted for strong leaders that protect popular government programs and policies. The President can\’t afford to concede the most popular Democratic positions, such as cutting middle class tax cuts and preserving social security benefits, in an effort to be bipartisan.

Politically speaking, sacrificing political goals to close in on bipartisanship completely failed  Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. A large reason why it was a disaster was because liberals in the media were unhappy with the policy concessions Senate Democrats made in healthcare and financial reform that ended up failing to get a single Republican vote. The left voiced the argument, what\’s the point in attempting to be bipartisan when the other side doesn\’t care to work with you?

\”Jon Stewart\’s rally to restore sanity was all non-partisan and urged cooperation with the other side, forgetting that Obama tried that and found out there are no moderates on the other side.\” – Bill Maher

If bipartisanship as defined by Wikipedia is a political situation in which opposing political parties compromise to achieve political goals, someone in the Senate majority should\’ve figured out that the only goal Republicans had was to be the party of \’no\’ and win more control of the government. Liberals were hoping that Democrats had a policy goal that included passing real reforms within moderate legislation, rather than just passing moderate legislation.

This frustration from the Democratic base eventually became so apparent that press secretary Robert Gibbs mocked it, calling those who were frustrated the \’ungrateful professional left\’ and going on to say \’they will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.\’ This angered Democrats even more. Republicans famously fear their base, which seems to consist of libertarians, neocons and social conservatives. A Democratic president, however, couldn\’t even find a press secretary with the common sense to not criticize and demean the base of voters that got him elected.\"\"

At the very least, Gibbs should have acknowledged the criticism and explained more thoroughly why the policy goals we wanted were impossible to achieve. Because he didn\’t communicate a message of frustration with Republicans or special interests (and not the \’professional left\’), Democrats became less supportive of the progressive agenda and far less enthused about voting for more \’change we can believe in\’ in the \’10 midterms.

The public says it craves bipartisanship, though historically, it doesn\’t really matter whether a bill is passed in a bipartisan manner or not. Civil rights was passed by a single party, as was Medicare. The Iraq war, however, was passed with votes from both parties. Medicare\’s popularity is about 5 times higher than the war\’s approval rating.

Moving forward, the question that Democrats and President Obama need to confront is, had we passed better, faster acting and less compromising reforms and communicated a bolder message, would the economy be in better shape? The answer is clearly yes. The Democratic majority needed to quit striving for bipartisanship and start actually fixing a broken system. Hopefully, the next progressive majority will set its priorities according to the needs of the people and understand what really matters.