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Insights: Politics

Most of what politicians claim is interparty cooperation in Washington is just politics as usual
E. J. Dionne Jr.
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

(continued from page 1)

In Bush's case, there was a clear disconnect between his sunny approach to Democratic legislators as individuals and his resolute insistence on pushing for his tax cut by whatever means were necessary. He talked bipartisanship one day, and then went into the state of a vulnerable Democratic senator the next to pressure that Democrat into voting with the Republicans.

Most conventional definitions of bipartisanship would hold that if Bush wanted a genuinely bipartisan tax bill, he'd have negotiated with a broad, representative group of Democrats. Together, they would have come up with a smaller tax bill benefiting the wealthy much less than the Bush bill does. It would have passed with a massive and real bipartisan majority.

Bush, of course, had a right to do what he wanted, and his strategy may work from his point of view. Conservatives in his party are certainly happier with him because he didn't pursue a bipartisan course. But only the staunchest Bush supporter could see what he did as genuinely bipartisan.

Interestingly, Bush has pursued a bipartisan strategy on his education proposal, playing up not to conservative Democrats or even conservatives in his own party, but to Ted Kennedy. Here is an issue where bipartisanship works, because the groundwork had been laid over many years through many cross-party conversations and compromises. And some of the issues involved -- federally mandated testing of students, for example -- split both parties. On this issue, bipartisanship is not only real but also essential.

Even more insidious is using the slogan of bipartisanship to undermine the opposition's right to engage in legitimate debate and attack. Not all partisanship is petty. Democrats who oppose Bush's tax cut (or Republicans who opposed Clinton's health plan) may have been partisan, but they believe -- or, in the case of the Republicans, believed -- that something important was at stake. To dismiss their arguments as just "partisanship" is a lazy way not to listen to the arguments.

There have been large differences in our country along partisan lines over issues ranging from slavery to the New Deal and, more recently, from health care to big tax cuts. Abraham Lincoln was a proudly partisan politician, but you can't write off his stand on slavery as "petty partisanship." Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were both partisans, in pursuit of serious agendas. There are many cases in which vigorous debate is both more honest and, in the long run, more productive in resolving differences.

So yes to bipartisanship, when it's appropriate and when it's real. But let us resolve to oppose brain-dead bipartisanship -- in both parties.


E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


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