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Lessons In Bipartisanship

A political scientist I much admire, James Morone of Brown University, has an op-ed in today's New York Times reminding us that there is nothing virtuous per se in bipartisanship. Although politicians talk about it all the time, they rarely do it--and we should not expect them to, he argues. Let the parties stand for ideas and let them fight them out.

Morone is right about this, and so is the Harvard political scientist Nancy Rosenblum--his former colleague at Brown--who has written On the Side of the Angels, a vigorous defense of parties reviewed in TNR by Paul Starr. Yet there is one aspect of the recent efforts on the part of Team Obama to win Republican support that should not be overlooked. In his first term as president, George W. Bush reached out to Democrats. Unlike the Republicans today, they reached back.

Bush had wanted to be known as the Education President. The Senate's man on education was Teddy Kennedy. Eight years ago, Kennedy was considered by most conservatives to be the most liberal member of the U. S. Senate; if you wanted to send out a scare letter to raise funds for conservative causes, Kennedy's was the name invoked. Think Pelosi and double the venom, and that, pretty much, was how the right treated the man everyone now rushes to honor. Given that level of vituperation, it took some courage on Bush's part to seek Kennedy's help. The two would work together on a number of causes, including immigration reform and Medicare. The heirs of two political dynasties, natural rivals, never became friends, but they did make it possible for a couple of laws to get passed.

As important as No Child Left Behind may have been, it is minor-league stuff compared to the current fiscal crisis. Barack Obama not only had political reasons for reaching out to Republicans, he had policy ones as well. An economic catastrophe is not quite like a natural disaster. But there is so much suffering involved that politicians can be forgiven for seeking some common ground to relieve it. Who wants to be on the side of deprivation?

Despite all this, not a single Republican assumed the role Teddy Kennedy played during the Bush administration. Of course three Republicans in the Senate voted for the stimulus package. But none of them were as far to the right in the Republican Party as Kennedy was to the left among Democrats. Nor were any of them promising to work together with the president on other issues. This is not to criticize them--their role in helping get the stimulus bill passed was essential. But their actions simply do not possess the same symbolic significance as Kennedy's did.

Bipartisanship can be approached in a bipartisan manner: Either party can initiate, and either party can respond. Yet the lesson here seems to be that Democrats are more willing to work with Republicans than the other way around. I try to explain why this is the case in my book, The Future of Liberalism. Conservatives, I argue, like to stand on principle. Liberals, by contrast, like to get things done. There is much to be admired about principle, but in politics, it is not always a virtue. Sometimes we are better off finding common ground than fighting things out. When we are, liberal flexibility makes more sense than conservative intransigence.     

--Alan Wolfe