'Any successful elected executive knows that real results are moreimportant than partisan battles and that good ideas should takeprecedence over rigid adherence to any particular politicalideology." So declared New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg uponrenouncing his membership in the GOP last week. The problem, ofcourse, is that people don't agree on what "real results" or "goodideas" are. Cutting taxes? Raising taxes? Funding stem-cellresearch? Banning stem-cell research? This is exactly why we havepartisan battles in the first place.
You would think that anybody who failed to grasp this would be urgedto study a high school civics textbook. Instead, Bloomberg is beingurged to run for president and lauded for his statesmanship.
Bloomberg has thus become the most prominent example of what youcould call partisanship scolds. These are people who believe thatdisagreement is the central problem in U.S. politics, that bothparties are to blame in equal measure, and that rejecting partyties or ideology is synonymous with the demonstration of virtue.While partisanship scolds believe that they stand in bold contrastto Washington, they are probably more heavily represented among theBeltway elite than any other demographic.
The official lobby of the partisanship scolds is a group called"Unity '08"-- a collection of graying eminences from both partieswho are calling for a bipartisan presidential ticket, perhaps ledby Bloomberg. Their rhetoric appears to be targeted at people whoenjoy kittens, rainbows, and David Broder columns. Specifically,Unity '08 says its ticket will run on "ideas and traditions whichunite and empower us as individuals and as a people."
Well, that's nice. Unfortunately, when the partisanship scolds get alittle more specific, things tend to break down. The first problemis that they can't agree on whether partisanship is makingWashington pay too much attention to public opinion or too little.Bloomberg says the former: "When you go to Washington now, you canfeel a sense of fear in the air--the fear to do anything, or sayanything, that might affect the polls, or give the other side anadvantage." Unity '08, on the other hand, says the latter: Neitherparty, it claims, "reflects the aspirations, fears, or will of themajority of Americans."
The second problem is that the partisanship scolds are extremelyvague about which chunk of Americans is being left out by thegrowing extremism in Washington. It is true that some broadlypopular views are underrepresented in national politics. A detailedpolitical typology released by the Pew Center in 2005 showed thatDemocratic voters are not as socially liberal as their leaders andRepublican voters are not nearly as economically conservative. Sothere is a sizeable base of socially traditionalist, economicallypopulist voters to be had. Unfortunately, the partisanship scoldsinvariably cater to exactly the opposite demographic: elites whofavor free trade, open immigration, cutting entitlements, andsocial tolerance.
Third, in the age of George W. Bush, the substance of thepartisanship scold ideology is no longer, by any reasonabledefinition, centrist. They are moderate Democrats who don't want toadmit it. Unity '08 proposes to address the following issues:"Global terrorism, our national debt, our dependence on foreignoil, the emergence of India and China as strategic competitorsand/or allies, nuclear proliferation, global climate change, thecorruption of Washington's lobbying system, the education of ouryoung, the health care of all, and the disappearance of theAmerican Dream for so many of our people."
Most Democrats wouldn't disagree with anything on this list. MostRepublicans, on the other hand, are happy to raise the national debtin order to cut taxes, either don't believe in global climatechange or don't want to do anything serious to stop it, oppose anyplan that could provide health care for all Americans, and thinkthe American Dream is thriving. Unity '08 further insists that guncontrol, abortion, and gay marriage should not "dominate or evencrowd our national agenda." Which party has been putting thoseissues at the center of the agenda? Not the Democrats.
Bloomberg's politics are even further to the left. He's anout-and-out social liberal, banning smoking in public places andgoing to war against the National Rifle Association. He emphasizesprograms to help the poor, has worked closely with unions, and hasdenounced rising inequality as a threat to democracy. But forBloomberg and his admirers to admit that their views do have a homein a major party would destroy the basis of their self-image. Thusthey must maintain at all costs the pretense of transcendingideology.
This pretense can be stretched to the point of absurdity, asevidenced by Time's glowing cover story on Bloomberg and his fellowmoderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. The premise of thearticle is that the two are "doing big things that Washington hasfailed to do." What things? The article cites "Washington's neglectof the working poor" and the fact that "Washington rejected theKyoto Protocol." Schwarzenegger is quoted touting his initiative tofund stem-cell research as a slap at "the Federal Government.""Washington" and "the Federal Government" are, of course,euphemisms for the Republican Party. But openly saying so would bepartisan. Partisanship scolds oppose the GOP agenda, but ratherthan acknowledge and confront those ideological differences, theyassume them away.
Indeed, the premise that ideological extremism has left no room ineither party for moderates like Bloomberg is belied by Bloomberghimself. There are many things keeping Bloomberg from running on aconventional party ticket, but the alleged extremism of the twoparties is not one of them. A longtime Democrat, he switched hisaffiliation for his initial mayoral run in 2001, but only becauserunning as a Republican offered him a clearer path to thenomination. Bloomberg's ideology today places him firmly within theDemocratic camp.
If Bloomberg took the honest route and switched back to theDemocrats to run for president, he'd be condemned as a transparentopportunist. Instead, he disingenuously renounces party altogetherand is praised as a visionary.