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Borde-nough: The same two parties

Published: April 9, 2010
Section: Opinions


American politicians denounce partisanship almost as readily as they jump in front of cameras and kiss babies. They seem certain that partisanship is very sharp and is a bad thing. The fact that they agree on this point, however, does not make them right about it.

Untold amounts of hot air have been vented against partisanship. For instance, in the March 30 edition of NBC’s Today Show, President Barack Obama spoke of being “frustrated” with partisan behavior during his recent efforts to pass health care legislation. While he was willing to sign legislation that had the backing of only his own Democratic Party, and only part of that, he suggested that the disputes amounted to the continuation of a troubling long-term “pattern of polarization” between Republicans and Democrats.

Republican Senator Judd Gregg has lamented (while attacking the Democratic version of a bill in the Senate Banking Committee) the existence of “a political climate where fierce partisanship has become the standard.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed to see in Democrats’ health care moves a “quest by a partisan majority to force its will on the public over bipartisan opposition.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid complained of an “increasingly partisan environment in Washington,” even as he pressed for health care legislation with only Democratic support.

On the other hand, as McConnell’s comment hints, every politician seems to want his idea to be labeled “bipartisan.” Reid made his comment in the context of heaping praise on Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who has been known to vote across party lines in the past. Reid hoped to recruit Snowe to vote for the Democrats’ health care bill; he could then say that it enjoyed bipartisan support.

McConnell thought that it was important to keep people like Snowe on side. He told the New York Times that “if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is OK.” The Democratic National Committee chose to highlight McConnell’s statement in a televised advertisement in order to show that McConnell had long been “plotting his obstruction” and that “Senate Republicans stood with him” in “playing politics.” Political leaders appear to argue that, as Obama put it, solving the country’s problems means “trying to narrow differences” between the parties.

Political leaders seem to agree that partisanship is strong and that, therefore, certain things that need to be done cannot be done in Washington. When that sort of orthodoxy emerges from the corridors of power, the public should be on guard.

For one thing, the conclusion that partisanship is an unmovable obstacle to legislation sounds disingenuous coming from legislators who work in a bipartisan fashion on a regular basis. And partisanship is a mild charge to level against an opponent. What is more, the “spirit” or “environment” of partisanship can be cited in itself a an obstacle to legislation. Since partisanship has no spokespersons and never lashes back at its opponents, there could be no easier target for blame.

Moreover, to conclude that sharp partisanship blocks progress in Washington is to simply accept the premise that partisanship itself is strong enough to do this. That may be a mistake.

For instance, both parties favored reducing the quality and quantity of health care available to many Americans by channeling less money into the system. The difference was a matter of method. Republicans, according to the “Roadmap for America’s Future” presented in January, would have done it by replacing medical entitlements with vouchers that would not grow with the rate of medical inflation. Democrats ultimately included subsidies that don’t grow with the rate of medical inflation in their law. They also failed to create sufficient disincentives for businesses to drop employees’ coverage, while reducing the value of insurance itself by encouraging employers to bargain for policies that cover as little as 60% of medical costs. Both parties, in other words, wanted less care for Americans.

A similar analysis could be extended to many other policy areas. The basic policy of both parties over the years has been to throw money into war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both parties want large American deployments to remain in both places. Republicans and Democrats excoriate China for keeping the value of its currency artificially low. Neither is keen to address the more serious problems underlying America’s enormous trade deficits. Democrats and Republicans talk of “reining in deficits,” a convenient phrase that glosses over the inability of either party to pretend that they wish to balance the budget or pay down the debt.

In terms of their leaders’ goals, the two parties aren’t all that different. What separates the parties takes center stage because what brings them together looks ugly and gets put in the chorus.