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
If a biped is an animal that walks on two feet and a bicycle is a vehicle that operates on two wheels, what in the world is a bipartisan?
No such creature exists. But in Washington parlance, to be bipartisan is to be virtuous, understanding and open-minded. The bipartisan is someone who prefers to "get things done" rather than to "bicker." He or she "sees both sides," can "work with anyone," puts aside "petty partisanship" -- partisanship, it seems, is always "petty" -- and can "rise above" or "go beyond" existing categories, battle lines and "stale ideas." (It's amazing that any idea someone opposes goes stale, often from the moment it's expressed.) Bipartisans like it when they are described as "statesmen" rather than "politicians."
Many people in Washington love being called bipartisan, but presidents like it more than anyone. In fairness to them, being bipartisan goes with their job description. As presidents like to say, they are the only members of the federal government elected by the entire country. (I'll decline here to make any Bush vs. Gore jokes.) And in dealing with Congress, presidents almost have to be bipartisan to win on anything.
Bill Clinton never managed to get the bipartisan thing going -- his health plan was a bad start, and his problem with that White House intern divided Washington into brutally partisan camps. But he sure had the language down pat. When he would regularly attack "the brain-dead politics in both parties," everyone nodded and smiled. Even if you're a partisan, you know for sure that you're not one of the brain-dead ones.
George W. Bush ran on what was almost certainly a more solidly conservative and Republican program than Ronald Reagan's. You'd think that would be called partisan. But Bush is masterful at linking a partisan program to soothing talk about the need to work together, and he spent his whole campaign talking about how well he worked with Democrats in the Texas Legislature. Never mind that some Texas Democrats are so conservative that they'd have trouble making it in the Republican Party in my native Massachusetts. Bush did the bipartisan rap extremely well, and it worked.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress this March, Bush offered a line for bipartisanship's greatest hits that must have made Clinton jealous. "Year after year in Washington," Bush declared, "budget debates seem to come down to an old, tired argument:" -- "old, tired" is an excellent usage in this rhetorical sweepstakes -- "on the one side, those who want more government regardless of the costs; on the other, those who want less government, regardless of the need." Of course, not one existing human being would place himself or herself in either of these camps. Whichever side of the argument you dislike is perfectly parodied in this pairing. And Bush comes out at the absolutely golden mean.
Since I was once accused by my brilliant friend David Brooks of being what he called a "beyondist" -- that is, I was one of those "beyond left and right" guys -- I should probably tread carefully here. So lest I seem old and tired, not to say stale or, God forbid, petty, it's time to include one of those "to be sure" paragraphs.
To be sure, there is a lot of needlessly nasty partisanship about. We're getting into the habit of taking genuine partisan differences and repackaging them as attacks on an opponent's character. That just creates junky politics which turn off all but the most partisan. And, yes, politics is full of false choices. Who says that you can't be pro-feminist and pro-family at the same time; or pro-market and pro-government, or pro-environment and pro-growth? It's often true that some issues really can be settled better by compromise and, yes, bipartisanship. As a practical matter, there isn't a senator or congressman around who doesn't like to have someone from the opposite party cosponsoring his or her favorite bill. As John Harris of The Washington Post pointed out recently, the surest sign a Democratic senator wants to be president is the heroic effort he'll make to pair his name with John McCain's on some piece of legislation.
So if I believe all this, why am I complaining about bipartisanship?
The largest problem is that bipartisanship -- as should already be obvious -- is often invoked in an entirely phony way. A bill supported by all the Democrats and just two Republicans -- or all the Republicans and just two Democrats -- is described as bipartisan when it is anything but. The word "bipartisanship" is used for a partisan purpose. What could be more dishonest than that? It gives both partisanship and bipartisanship a bad name.