Insights: Politics

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

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.

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.