After reading some items from Ezra Klein and David Broder on the subject of bipartisanship and health reform, I think it’s worth pointing out that “bipartisan” is a concept that I think looks a bit weird when the underlying numbers are so lopsided. To see why, think bank to the stimulus debate.
Nobody really considered the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to be a triumph of bipartisan legislating. But it did get the votes of Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, and Susan Collins. If we assume the existence of Al Franken, in other words, there were 62 votes in favor of the bill. Under normal circumstances when a majority party has maybe 54 or 55 seats, then getting to 62 votes requires a pretty robustly bipartisan bill.
But of course there aren’t 46 or 45 Republicans, there are only 40. And why’s that? Well, a big part of the story is that Republicans who held vulnerable seats nonetheless voted in lockstep with their party leadership’s conservative agenda. Democrats, by the same token, got to where they are because the caucus tolerates many members who frequently deviate from the party line. But this means that the GOP has managed to make itself small precisely by minimizing the number of people who are likely to cross party lines. On Inauguration Day, there were only three Republicans left who regularly joined bipartisan compromises. Obama got all three for ARRA. And for his trouble, Senator Specter got essentially booted from the party. So now there are really only two “gettable” Republicans left. So does an Obama bill that Collins and Snowe sign on to a “bipartisan” bill? If there were six fewer Senate Democrats and six more moderate Senate Republicans, would getting all eight of them to sign on to something make it a moderate bill?
Personally, I’m more interested in a good bill than a bipartisan one. But the atmospherics of bipartisanship are important to the press. But the quality has been defined in a way that makes it essentially impossible to achieve. Normally, a bill that unites the base of one party with moderates in both parties counts as “bipartisan.” And that’s exactly what ARRA did. There just happen to be very very very few moderate Republicans. But that’s not Barack Obama’s fault. If Pat Toomey hadn’t mounted a primary against Arlen Specter, that might have been a third bipartisan vote for health reform. If Lincoln Chaffee hadn’t lost his seat, that might have been a fourth bipartisan vote for health reform. If the Virginia GOP hadn’t rigged the nominating process against Tom Davis, he might have been a bipartisan vote for health reform. But when you eliminate the moderates from your caucus, you eliminate yourself from the “bipartisan” game.