The Time for Bipartisanship

Looking back on the stimulus votes a lot of people are, rightly, drawing some conclusions about the prospects more broadly for efforts to pursue bipartisan or “post-partisan” initiatives. For my two cents, I think the main point is that you need to think seriously about what kind of issue you’re talking about. What bipartisanship requires, at the end of the day, is not politeness but a willingness to identify issues that cut across normal divides. For example, George W. Bush seems to be a stupid man, who’s also kind of a cruel jerk, along with being such a hard-core partisan that he routinely corrupted a number of federal agencies, including the U.S. Attorneys’ offices, in an effort to abuse his power for partisan gains. But none of that stopped him from having a nice bipartisan signing ceremony for the legislation authorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief:

The crux of the matter wasn’t that Bush had some momentary conversion to a skilled bipartisan approach. Rather, funding for initiatives aimed at fighting infectious disease in Africa is just a bit peripheral to the core issues of American politics. So bipartisanship was possible.

The high tide of bipartisanship in the United States came when many northern Democrats started seeing an embrace of civil rights for African-Americans as a logical extension of economic and social egalitarianism in the Jefferson-Jackson mold. At this same time, all Southern politicians were committed to a white supremacist social framework and to the view that terrorist violence aimed at bolstering that framework should go unpunished by legal authorities. That meant that you had a wide range of views about non-racial issues inside the Democratic Party, because Southern politicians of all perspectives were Democrats, and you also had a wide range of views about racial issues inside the Democratic Party, because the Southerners were white supremacists but the northerners generally weren’t. This meant there were ideological coalitions that cut across the partisan divide on all kinds of issues, with some Democrats joining with most Republicans to take a conservative view of economic issues, and some Democrats joining with most Republicans to take a progressive view of racial issues. And you also had questions of pure partisan interest (relating to the winning of elections and disbursement of patronage) that cut across the ideological coalitions.

The modern political system just isn’t like that. Racial issues have been subsumed into the larger economic debate, and the parties are well-sorted by ideology. That doesn’t mean you can never see bipartisan coalitions, but it means you can’t see them on the core political issues about taxes, spending, and the distribution of resources. You can’t find them, in other words, on things like the stimulus bill. But they’d be easy to find both on things like PEPFAR that are fairly minor, and also perhaps on issues that have a strong regional component. What a commitment to running a bipartisan administration would have to mean, if not to be vacuous, would be a determination to use the president’s agenda-setting powers to focus legislative activity on those sort of questions. But with the country in the midst of an economic crisis, a health care crisis, and a climate crisis it would seem very odd to me to decide to do that.