It’s possible that I know even less about the details of FISA legislation than Joe Klein does, so unlike him I’ve decided to let that issue primarily be covered by people who know what they’re talking about. That said, it’s clear to me from reading this post that his views on this subject aren’t being driven by anything related to FISA at all. Rather, his point is:
Finally, if we can’t rebuild the non-toxic atmosphere of bipartisan cooperation that served the country through most of its history few, if any, of the reforms most Democrats favor will have any chance of passage, even with a Democratic President and Congress. We simply need to get past the cynicism and partisan mistrust cultivated by the Bush Administration.
This, however, conflates two slightly separate issues. One is the cynicism of the Bush administration. The constant lying and disregard for the law. We really do need to “get past” all that, but obviously such getting past can’t be accomplish by the opposition party’s bold acts of will. At a minimum, you would actually need to get rid of the cynical Bush administration personnel and have them replaced by other people.
More broadly, though, it’s unfair to Bush to blame him for the lack of the sort of “bipartisan cooperation” we saw in the past, and it’s equally unfair to blame Democrats for not reviving it. Bipartisan competition will tend to be rarer when the parties are ideologically coherent. And that’s what we have right now — almost every Democrat in congress is more liberal than almost every Republican. That makes bipartisan cooperation difficult. The roots of this polarization, however, are structural and not really lamentable. The old era of bipartisan cooperation was grounded in the parties having substantial ideological overlap and that, in turn, was a consequence of Jim Crow and the existence of a weird one-party state in the apartheid South where the one party was the Democrats even though the region was generally more conservative in ideological terms. That era’s not going to come back and we shouldn’t want it to come back, even if we deem certain aspects of its passing to be lamentable.
But most of all, we shouldn’t urge the congress to take courses of action that are wrong on the merits out of a deluded sense that doing so might revive a past era of bipartisanship. The causes of these things are structural. And the structural set-up of a situation in which a bipartisan FISA compromise could be reached are pretty clear. You’d need a Democratic President. No Democratic President is going to be dogmatic about refusing to accept vast new executive powers. At the same time, given the nature of the political coalitions, a Democrat wouldn’t be seeking to block compromise and thereby gain a wedge issue. Congressional Republicans will see their authoritarianism tempered by partisanship. But those circumstances don’t exist, so a bipartisan solution looks unlikely. But acts of unilateral surrender don’t end political polarization — 12 Democrats voted for Bush’s tax cuts in 2001, several Democrats voted for the 2003 Medicare bill, a whole bumper crop of Democrats voted for the war in 2002, etc. — but the structural roots of partisan polarization remained in place.