Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dead Armadillos

"There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos." -- Jim Hightower
When presidents deliver their State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, it is illuminating to see who stands up and applauds at key moments in the speech and who sits on their hands.  For the viewer it is one of those times where the stark contrast between the parties is palpable.  Democrats stand up when the president talks about the importance of education, social programs, the environment; Republicans stand when the president talks about tax cuts and less government spending.

This year could be different.  Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) has proposed ending the tradition of each party seated on separate sides of the aisle for the State of the Union.  In Udall's view the divided seating is a "negative symbol of the divisions in Congress."  According to Udall, this "sets a negative tone that only perpetuates the narrative that Congress cannot - and will not - come together for the good of the country we all love."  Top ranking Democrats and Republicans seem to be warming to Udall's idea.

It is Udall, however, who is perpetuating a narrative -- a false one -- with this "symbolic gesture" that he claims will "go a long way to bridge the political divide."  In this narrative, bipartisanship is exalted as an end in itself.  Government will function better if only Democrats and Republicans reach across the aisle to find a middle ground.  Matt Bai, in Sunday's Times, piled on, noting with approval Udall's plan of having the "two parties intermingle," which he baldy asserted would "present a different kind of visual to a public weary of division."     

What nonsense!  We need to accept what Paul Krugman recently described as a deep political divide in Washington.  Or, as E.J. Dionne once wrote in defense of partisanship, "our partisan divisions are about authentic principles that lead to very different approaches to governing."  Dionne explained that "Democrats on the whole believe in using government to correct the inequities and inefficiencies the market creates, while Republicans on the whole think market outcomes are almost always better than anything government can produce."  Krugman stated that Democrats believe in the modern welfare state in which "society’s winners" in a private enterprise economy "are taxed to pay for a social safety net."  Republicans believe that "people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft."  There is no middle ground.

Bipartisanship is being pushed by those who want the Democrats to move to the center, and for good reason.  So-called compromises only happen when Democrats cave on Republican demands because Republicans are a far more unified party and can usually pull some conservative Democrats to their side to thwart or water down liberal measures.  The tax cut deal is a perfect example of how this bipartisanship works.  The inability of Congress to pass more progressive health care reform that would have included a public option or a larger stimulus package that would have better helped the economy are other examples.

While more civility is fine and the toxic rhetoric certainly should be toned down, let's not get carried away.  We must stop trying to pretend that the solution to good governance is bipartisanship because that can only be attained if one side -- usually the Democrats -- capitulates to the other.  There is nothing wrong with having two sides fight hard for their principles.  It is certainly better than what we have experienced lately -- only having one side do so.

[Related posts:  The Speech]


kevin said...

Bipartisanship is often confused with nonpartisanship, I think. Something that is bicolored has two distinct colors, not a blend. Personally, when I find myself wishing for bipartisanship, I'm not hoping that anyone's political convictions shift (that's a separate wish I have). Striving for bipartisanship should be about the overarching tenor of politics. It should be about coexisting with mutual awareness that our political differences are simply separate expressions of the same dream...the dream for ourselves, our families, our community, our country. I do believe that there are folk out there who are enemies of this dream, but if you go by the general tenor of debate, you'd see enemies on almost every soap box. This is not merely a matter of civility or words used, ultimately it's about exactly what this post advocates: making partisanship part of one's healthy worldview. Sadly, when citizens call for bipartisanship, the political elite do not seem to have a nuanced grasp of the concept.

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