Bi-partisan


Expect to hear a lot from me in the coming weeks about No Labels.  A posting on this weblog in mid-October introduced readers to the group.  To refresh, No Labels is a grassroots organization of people who believe we should “Put Labels Aside” and “Do What’s Best for America”.  We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America.  I will be attending the national kickoff for No Labels in New York City on December 13 and will make an effort to post on the event in real time from New York.

In the last few weeks there has been growing national publicity about No Labels, including an excellent Op-ed in this mornings Washington Post by William A. Galston and David Frum entitled A no labels solution to Washington gridlock.  I recommend the piece.

Also, for those of you in Washington, DC, I am hosting a Meet Up on January 4, 2010 (at a location still to be determined) to meet and discuss No Labels.  We’ll talk about the December 13 National No Labels Kickoff in NYC and what those of us in DC can do to advance the No Labels agenda.  You can sign up for the Washington DC event here.

For those of you in other parts of the country, there are Meets Up planned in early January in a number of locales.  See the No Labels website for details.

On the eve of the election in Great Britain there were two Op-Ed pieces in the Washington Post that I regarded as worthwhile reading. They were Mark Penn’s A new wind in politics and David S. Broder’s A test of two parties.  While Nick Clegg’s Liberal  Democrat Party didn’t do nearly as well as predicted (an understatement), it looks like it will still play the role of kingmaker. That is hopefully good news for those of us who believe that two-party rule is failing in the modern world to move policy in the right direction.

Let this also announce my complete and total endorsement of Charlie Crist’s run as an independent for U.S. Senator from Florida.  Two-party rule must be broken.

As readers will know, I believe that the biggest threat to a successful Obama presidency lies in Nancy Pelosi and her House of Representatives.  Their full-left tilt, if left unchecked, will mean measures more extreme than are both wise for the country and sound politics for Democrats and especially Obama.  Politically, too far left means the Democrats give Republicans the amunition to potentially scuttle Obama initiatives and perhaps even alter the composition of the House and Senate over 4 years.  The good news is that there are mechanisms to neutralize Ms. Pelosi and her band of liberal brothers.  One of these is called the United States Senate.  For the good of the country, the Senate is almost always the more deliberative and cautious body.  Even better is when you have moderates of either party in the Senate working for reasonable compromise.  We saw it in the last administration when a number of Republicans joined with Democrats to defuse “the nuclear option” threatened by harder core Republicans in response to Democratic foot dragging on the confirmation of federal court nominations.  We are also fortunately seeing it in this administration and this piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by Senators Evan Bayh, Tom Carper and Blanche Lincoln called Building Bridges on the Hill informs us as to why they believe that moderates working together is a good thing.  Here’s an excerpt:  

As moderate leaders, it is not our intent to water down the president’s agenda. We intend to strengthen and sustain it. Moderation is not a mathematical process of finding the center for its own sake. Practical solutions are practical because they offer our best chance to make a difference in people’s lives today without forcing our children to pick up the tab tomorrow.

As a centrist, or “moderate”, I could not agree with the words above more.  Moderation is absolutely not a mathematical process of finding the center for its own sake.  What it is about is finding rational solutions that work irrespective of party and party politics.  That is the core message of this blog–its raison d’etre.  Thank you Senators for attempting to give it life in the United States Senate.

In my post on this blog yesterday I noted the growing chorus of political commentators who believe that this country and its leadership is not taking our country’s present economic crisis seriously enough.  Add one more commentator to the list.  Today in the Washington Post, David Ignatius joins the chorus with his piece A ‘Phony War’ On the Crisis

In his column, Ignatius likens our response to the present “crisis” to the time in history when Neville Chamberlain was still Prime Minister of Great Britain and acting as if the problem with Germany could be dealt with short of war.  It couldn’t then and it probably can’t now.  

This is no ordinary recession.  I have lived through a few and am startled when I read that current unemployment is about the same as it was during the early 1980s.  I was just out of graduate school in the early 1980s and the times had a completely different feel to the times today.  Today, it is as if much of our economy has ground to a standstill.  I talk to friends looking for employment and they are reporting that jobs have almost completely dried up.  And it is going to get worse, a lot worse, before it gets better. 

Ignatius’ perspective on our lack of real action in dealing with this crisis is most valuable.  He faults the President for, in a time of economic crisis, putting together a cabinet with almost no real-world business experience.  Here’s what he has to say about our Republican and Democratic Congressional leadership:

Republicans and Democrats are sticking to party-line votes on many key issues. The Democrats were egregious in packing the stimulus bill with pet projects that won’t stimulate much except campaign contributions and in sticking with earmarks — a symbolic outrage that Obama promised during the campaign he would eliminate. But the Republicans have been even worse in their strategy of opposing recovery plans, which has given a legislative face to Rush Limbaugh’s “I hope he fails.”     

Unlike the country’s reaction to the September 11 terrorist-inspired crisis, there is no sense that the country’s leadership perceives the degree of the risk that the country faces, or that we are indeed even in “crisis”.  And, while as a country we perhaps overreacted to the crisis of September 11, it is clear we are not treating our present economic crisis with the respect it deserves.  What it deserves is the putting aside partisan politics and ideological agendas in favor of unified action in the national interest.

One thing the country may need to do is spend additional money, both in supplementing the funds already committed to the banking industry and perhaps in additional stimulus funding.  If it comes to the latter, this time around we need to do it right with clear criteria, developed with leadership from both parties, aimed at maximizing short-term economic impact.

Having said this, however, I fear our political leadership will not act until things get a lot worse.  Let’s just hope that by then it is not too late.     

David S. Broder’s column in today’s Washington Post adds an adjective to the ones I’ve seen most often attached to President Obama’s speech on Tuesday night.  In addition to ambitious and audacious Mr. Broder would have us add “risky”.  I’d go one step further and say “dangerous” as well.  Here’s an excerpt from the column entitled Obama Rolls the Dice:

The size of the gambles that President Obama is taking every day is simply staggering. What came through in his speech to a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday night was a dramatic reminder of the unbelievable stakes he has placed on the table in his first month in office, putting at risk the future well-being of the country and the Democratic Party’s control of Washington.

The country has come out of a rough 8 years of a presidency that did little of merit other than “keep us safe”.  I would add that I’m not even certain of the “keep of safe” yet.  It remains to be seen if seeds sown by the methods and tactics employed to keep us safe sprout and grow into even greater threats and dangers to the nation.  The point is that Bush left the country a much weaker one than the one he inherited.  It is into this scene that Barack Obama steps onto the national stage with a clear mandate to change direction – to address our ills and get us back on our feet.  And this he is telling us he intends to do, but much more as well.

It is the “much more” that’s concerning people.  Wouldn’t it be enough to simply right our economic boat?  Wouldn’t he be a great President if he just accomplished that well while he begins to lay the foundation for most of the “other” in a second term?    

I am concerned that the agenda is so expansive that it and therefore the President can’t help but fail.  The first and most likely failure is political.  Too ambitious and bold and Obama risks not getting the critical 2-3 Republican votes he needs in the Senate, let alone carrying all Democrats.  Political failure is dangerous.  It has the potential to weaken our government and diminish our standing in the world.  I am also concerned that with so much on the table that deliberation will be rushed.  We will not be able to address issues as carefully and as rationally as they need to be addressed.  They will be imperfect, if not deeply flawed, just as the stimulus was rushed and deeply flawed.  That risks another failure–failure of the policy to accomplish its desired objectives.  The verdict will be out for a while on whether the stimulus bill is going to work.  Are we ready to rush into so much else as well.

I conflicted in the sense that I agree there is much that needs to be addressed.  It is just that I’m uncomfortable in moving so fast.  I’m also uncomfortable with the Democratic Party having sole control of this process.  I’ll be frank in admitting that I do not see the liberal experiments of the New Deal or Great Society as being resounding successes.  Yet this is that and more.  Yes, we need to address a host of issues but we need to take great care before we create new government programs to address them.  We can’t afford new entitlements when the ones we have are out of control. 

Read the David Broder column in its entirety.  He ends by noting the dangers of the world in which we live.  Taking risks at home may leave us less able to address those risks in the world at large.  There is indeed danger in the President’s expansive call to action. 

Another useful perspective on this is offered today by William Kristol, now of the Washington Post.  His piece is entitled Republican’s Day of Reckoning.  I agree with him that what Republicans need to do is “[s]low down the policy train.  Insist on a real and lengthy debate.”  For me this is important, not to increase the Republicans’ political standing or the party’s chances of winning the next election, but to save the country from foolish, dangerous and ill-conceived public policy.  I don’t care if Republicans ever win the presidency or control of Congress again, so long as their opposition is able to accomplish two things:  First, check the excesses of the Democratic party and its liberal ideologues.  Second, slow down the process and allow a rational debate that increases the chances of solutions that can work.  That’s a tall order, I know, especially as both parties are most often less interested in solutions that work than in winning the next election.  

Former U.S. Senator and currently President of the University of Oklahoma, David Boren, pens an Op-ed in today’s Washington Post entitled Building Bipartisan Habits.  The piece is a most worthwhile-read.  I had the pleasure of attending the Bipartisan Summit that he hosted last year in Oklahoma City.  I attended as an observer (audience member, not participant). 

Bipartisanship has its limits but it definitely has its place.  We can’t give up on it.

Coming to the defense of bipartisanship in his column in the Washington Post this morning is David S. Broder in a piece entitled Betting on Bipartisanship.  It is well worth reading.  I agree with Mr. Broder. 

Clearly bipartisanship is no panacea–it will rarely lead us to the best public policy option, which is probably rarely attainable anyway given the system these days.  It is, however, important and necessary.  One must also acknowledge that there’s a lot working against it, chiefly our two-party system that puts both parties in constant competition to win the next election.  But without it, we have one-party rule which will also rarely result in the best thing being done and will often result in the public doing a 180 degree turn in the next election; the swinging pendulum isn’t good either.  Better steady and even, which is a more likely result with bipartisan majorities passing legislation. 

Give the piece a read.  It provides an excellent follow-on to my posting entitled Bipartisanship–Is it Possible?  and the Op-eds referenced therein.  Broder in particular refutes some of the assertions of James Morone, which I cited in my posting.  

As readers of the What Should Be know, I’ve become quite a fan of Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report.  His piece, published on February 13 in the National Journal’s Congress Daily/AM, is entitled Obama’s Triangulation Squares With Public.  I recommend giving it a read:  Here are a couple of excerpts:

Regarding how Republicans in Congress are handling this economic crisis, it seems to appear that their efforts seemed designed to seek approval from the 28 percent of Americans who call themselves Republicans in Gallup polling, but there seems to be little if any effort to reach out to the roughly 72 percent of Americans who either consider themselves Democrats or independents.

Indeed, it would be hard to see how Republicans think they are helping themselves these days, other than trying to feel better about themselves, even if no one else does.

Isn’t that the truth?  When Republicans need to be reaching out to the 72% of America that no longer agrees with them, they’re busy consolidating their 28% base.  Yes, very smart.  Here’s another excerpt that shows Mr. Cook is an equal opportunity critic:

Democrats in Congress seem almost as out of touch with the public mood.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comment that “Washington seems consumed by this process argument of bipartisanship,” suggests that she learned little from the 2008 election results. Voters really did seem to be serious last fall about Washington changing its ways, even if the old ways were more convenient for those in power.

After all, why try to work with the other side when you can just steamroll them? Granted, how Republicans have handled this economic crisis would certainly make it tempting to just ignore and work around them, but in the Senate, that won’t work.

Besides, the end product of a one-party solution might not be what Americans really want anyway. And while only 28 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, the 36 percent who call themselves Democrats are still a far cry from a majority. Add to that the fact that an equal number can’t bring themselves to identify with either party, and it should be a sober reminder to Democrats that while voters might have rejected the GOP, they haven’t exactly embraced Democrats either.

Democrats, especially those on the far left of the party, seem to forget that winning an election, even one as impressive as the 2008 election, does not mean that a grand shift has taken place in the American electorate.  If Democrats push too extreme (liberal) an agenda, they risk alienation of the 36% who neither allign as Democrat or Republican, in addition to more conservative Democrats.  Rather than being hostile to Republicans, especially in the Senate, who force moderation of Democratic plans, they should be thankful that they just might be what ultimately saves them from themselves in the eyes of a more conservative electorate.

While I applaud and support President Obama’s efforts to extend an olive branch to Republicans, as long as he leads a party that is as beholden to liberal interest groups as Republicans are to conservative interest groups, there is going to be very little chance of finding “bipartisan” common ground.  Add to this the fundamental interest of both political parties in winning the next election and you can see that there would rarely much interest upon the part of either party in finding common ground.  This is even more true for the out-of-power party, in this case Republicans, as there is little for them to gain in going along along with majority party initiatives.  Expect to see bipartisanship only in crises, natural disasters, national security, etc..  One might have hoped that economic crisis (the largest since the Great Depression) qualified as a reason to come together in bipartisan fashion, but the stimulus bill showed us this wasn’t the case.  For more on this, see my posting entitled Russian Roulette.   

Of interest on this topic today are two pieces, a story in the Washington Post entitled After Stimulus Battle, Liberals Press Obama and an Op-ed in the New York Times by James Morone entitled One Side to Every Story.  The first explains that liberals are now encouraging the President to step forward boldly with a liberal agenda and to avoid unnecessary compromise.  It is a very good piece that I recommend reading highly.  The second opinion piece informs us that partisanship has always been and will always be.  It is in part what makes our system work.  It provides a good perspective.

I will make two general comments and then address, briefly for now, both comments:  1.  America is becoming more polarized; and 2. For a variety of reasons, including the increasing partisanship, America is doing a very poor job making rational public policy decisions in the national interest. 

There can be little doubt that Congress has become more polarized.  This is due to a variety of factors but is probably mostly due to gerrymandering by state legislatures.  Congressmen and Congresswomen are sent to Washington by their ideologically left or right leaning districts to pursue that ideological agenda.  That’s makes it very difficult for either party to come together in the center.  That’s not what they’ve been sent by their constituents to do.  I regard this as tragic as it leaves most of the country–those who reside in the middle of the American political spectrum (which I’ve described before, courtesy of Charlie Cook, as between the 35-yards lines)–under-represented and unable to meaningfully advocate for “centrist” solutions.  In addition, party leadership tends to represent the ideological extremes as do the parties’ major interest groups.  

Along with party identification and left or right ideological orientation comes, I would argue, a tendency to begin to place party doctrine or ideological assumptions ahead of careful discernment of the facts of a particular case.  Thus, instead of doing a careful examination of the facts of a particular issue, we apply informational proxies that we have obtained from our party and/or the left or right wing ideological special interest groups that we trust.  We, thus, often by-pass rationality in favor of popular wisdom or group think.  The huge downside is that decisions made irrationally are unlikely to work. 

I am, therefore, not optimistic that the present system, growing more polarized by the year, will be able to fashion policy that will be either be effective or broadly acceptable to the majority of Americans.  Obama’s instincts are correct that the system needs to change.  Post partisanship is a lofty goal, but its not going to happen in our present two party system and he’s not going to lead us there with feet firmly planted in the one of the two dominant political parties.  For post partisanship to really work I would argue that Barack Obama would have to, at least functionally, “leave” the Democratic party and become a true post partisan.  This is unlikely to happen.  Until it does, post partisan talk will be just that.   

 

The Stimulus Bill that President Obama will sign today in Denver is probably a good thing, by and large.  But, it’s certainly not nearly as stimulatory and, therefore, as good, as it could have been.  By making early passage of the bill a priority, the President traded away the possibility of making the bill better, which in turn would almost assuredly have garnered more bipartisan support.  This is unfortunate for two reasons.  First, a bill of this magnitude and importance needed to communicate to the American people that it had the support of the majority of its political leadership.  Second, just a few weeks into his presidency, Obama has managed to starkly divide Republicans and Democrats.  We are almost as polarized as it’s possible to get.  That does not bode well for the next four years.  Meeting with Republicans on the Hill and at cocktail parties at the White House after the bill had been written largely by liberal House Democrats apparently didn’t demonstrate to Republicans (all but three) that he was serious about bipartisanship and doing business in a new “postpartisan” way. 

Additionally, the Washington Post reported yesterday in a story of the same name that “Politically, Stimulus Battle Has Just Begun.”   This battle will involve Republicans casting blame or the Democrats claiming credit for the perceived negative or positive effects of the bill on the U.S. economy.  We’ve also seen, a mere 3 weeks into the 111th Congress, the launch of the likely political issue of the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. 

I would argue that a more traditional and slower process–one that was much more clearly reliant on the advice and counsel of economic experts of various political persuasions–would have both built public confidence and made it much more difficult for both Democrats to have ideologically perverted and Republicans to have ideologically opposed the bill.  Further, if after such an open and transparent process Republicans had still opposed the bill, the Democrats’ case against the Republicans for playing politics with the American economy would have been all the stronger.  As it is now, the political winner of this battle is far from certain.  Everything will obviously depend upon how the economy performs in the next 18 months and whether the public perceives the stimulus to have been helpful or not.  The bottom line is that our partisan politicians played a giant game of Russian Roulette with our economy instead of doing the job they were hired to do.

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