Why Bipartisanship Doesn't Work
During the presidential campaign, both candidates touted the benefits of bipartisanship. John McCain couldn’t talk enough about all the times he “reached across the aisle” to work on legislation with Democrats (though the two most prominent examples, the McCain-Feingold Act and his immigration deal with Ted Kennedy, weren’t exactly rousing successes). And Barack Obama was supposed to represent a “new kind of politics,” where party affiliation took a back seat to what worked. He hadn’t had much experience in bipartisanship, since he never really did much of anything in the Senate, but he did pass this one ethics law with Richard Lugar.
Then Obama was elected, and of course all his bipartisanship talk was quickly discarded. Obama (in what was admittedly a brilliant move) kept Robert Gates on as Secretary of Defense, and appointed Illinois Rep. Ray Hood as Transportation Secretary. Another sign of bipartisanship was Obama’s offer of the Secretary of Commerce job to Senator Judd Gregg, and that was tarnished by the fact that Obama would have stripped the Commerce Department of its authority to conduct the census. But apart from those early (and in the case of Gregg, ineffective) gestures, Obama’s administration has been politics as usual: Obama blames Bush for our current economic crisis, and has orchestrated attacks against Rush Limbaugh. The politics of hope seem more like the politics of the status quo.
Of course, you can’t blame Obama for that—that’s just how politics works, and there’s a reason politics works that way. Bipartisanship doesn’t work because it is hard to get productive work done when the other party is doing his best to ensure that you will be out a job next election. This fundamental conflict of interest is a part of all bipartisan dealing, and is the reason why most bipartisan negotiations result in a compromise that neither side likes at all.
Most people, however, wish that things were different; that politicians from both sides of the aisle could join together to find solutions for America. Basically, they hope the Barack Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” might have some reality, and bipartisanship might have a chance.
They shouldn’t. Bipartisanship doesn’t work, at least not in American politics right now. The two parties are far too far apart ideologically for compromise to be a real possibility. It is possible to compromise when the differences are a matter of degree. It is not possible to forge any sort of lasting compromise when the differences are a matter of kind.
Take Obama’s stimulus package. It was a notoriously hard-fought bill; the Republicans fought it every step of the way, and the Democrats fought back just as vigorously. Neither side seriously considered a real compromise. (Although without the GOP resistance, it is very probable that the stimulus would have been much larger, so perhaps the Democrats did compromise, though not very much). But what compromise could have been possible? In conservative ideology, the very existence of the bill is an abomination. The question was not settling the exact dollar amount of the stimulus—the real question was whether the bill should be passed at all. And there is no compromise possible in that kind of either-or situation.
It’s the same sort of deal with most other political issues—abortion, gay marriage, bailouts.
So when politicians do try to compromise, the result is an impossible hybrid that neither side likes. Republicans usually adopt the liberal principle that government action is the answer to any crisis. Democrats allow that any government action should be restrained, and that taxes should remain low. So the U.S. spends money (keeping the Democrats happy), while not spending enough (if we assume that government action can do good), or having any way to compensate for its expenditures (which keeps Republicans content).
In some countries, where both sides have the same goals, but different ways of reaching them, bipartisanship may be a good, even necessary thing. But in a country, like in America, where the parties have radically different goals, bipartisanship is at best a necessary evil. Obama’s dream of genuine bipartisanship will remain unfulfilled—and that’s a good thing.