In the wake of the most productive lame-duck congressional session in years—the crux of which was a grand bargain between Mitch McConnell and Barack Obama, who until recently seemed as if they could cooperate on absolutely nothing—devotees of bipartisanship have renewed their flagging hopes. These seem to include the president himself, who commented: “If there’s any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it’s that we’re not doomed to endless gridlock.” But au contraire: There is every indication that the next two years will be incredibly unproductive—a toxic mix of budgetary stalemate and bloody skirmishes, in Congress and in the courts, over every conceivable policy issue. For all the punditocracy’s denunciations of mindless partisanship, this state of affairs has largely been caused by disagreements over principle, rather than gamesmanship or hunger for power.
The truth is that, due to the ideological sorting-out of the parties over the past several decades—and in particular the hyper-radicalization of the GOP since 2006—our political system is in the throes of a battle over fundamentals. Democrats and Republicans are engaged in the most intractable face-off over core philosophical questions that Washington has seen in a very long time. Let’s take a look at four issues that used to command some degree of consensus, but which now make consensus impossible:
Economic recovery. With George W. Bush out of power, conservatives have rejected the very idea that government spending can stimulate the economy—despite it being a fundamental lesson from Economics 101. Going into the New Year, they are championing huge cutbacks in federal and state spending that are sure to immediately boost unemployment and dampen middle-class purchasing power; and a year from now, expect another brouhaha over the extension of unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, playing off the hard-money fanaticism of the Tea Parties, conservatives are planning to attack Ben Bernanke’s stewardship of the Fed—accusing him of undermining the soundness of the dollar and courting hyperinflation.
Progressive taxation. While liberals and conservatives have always differed over the extent to which the burden of paying for government should fall on those most able to pay—and on whether those taxes should be levied from capital or labor—the basic concept of progressive taxation has long been a sacred cow. That’s no longer true. In addition to demanding lower and lower marginal income and capital gains tax rates on the highest earners, conservatives are now publicly complaining that the working poor are not taxed enough, and calling for total exemptions from taxation of both investment and inheritance income. This trend is particularly acute at the level of state government, where Republicans in deficit-ridden states are calling for hikes in consumption taxes while fighting for the elimination of corporate and personal income taxes. In Congress, the Obama-McConnell tax deal has papered over these differences of principle, and there is little room for further cooperation until the question is re-fought with a vengeance in 2012.
Constitutional limitations on the role of government. Conservative legal thinkers have long deplored the judicial consensus on regulation that has generally prevailed since the 1930s—under which the Supreme Court adopted a view of the Constitution’s Commerce and Spending clauses that enabled federal involvement in a wide range of issues from banking to the environment. But until recently, the primary prescription that Republican politicians have offered for this problem was a slow counter-revolution via the appointment of conservative judges. Now, with the rise of the Tea Party, Republicans are calling for direct action. Their gambits range from requiring that federal legislation identify specific enumerated powers which enable it, to impeding the implementation of “unconstitutional” legislation through bureaucratic guerilla warfare, to adopting such hardy nineteenth and twentieth-century theories as nullification and interposition. Underlying this behavior is the philosophical focus on “constitutionalism”—the belief that the Founders (if not the Creator) envisioned permanent, substantive limitations on the federal government in defense of private property, the states, and cultural traditions, which cannot be modified by court decisions or even by constitutional amendments. For the next two years, we’re more likely to see slash-and-burn warfare on these issues than bipartisan comity.
American exceptionalism. Even foreign policy has become deeply ideological during the past few years, as illustrated by the controversy over whether President Obama is enough of a believer in “American exceptionalism.” The term once referred primarily to the belief that the United States had a special destiny, enabled by its natural and historical advantages, that made it a democratic role-model for nations the world over. Now it has increasingly come to mean the conviction that any legal or ideological limitations on America’s freedom of action—even limitations originally proposed by the United States itself—are deeply offensive to the country’s very purpose. This focus on exceptionalism is particularly useful to a Republican Party that is divided between isolationists, such as Ron Paul, and aggressive interventionists, such as Bill Kristol; both can agree that treaties and international organizations are a threat to America, whether it’s conceived as a fortress or as a global redeemer. With all of the GOP’s 2012 candidates banging the exceptionalist drum—and the relatively modest New START treaty already ratified—conservatives will likely spend the next two years trying to draw foreign policy contrasts between their party and the White House, rather than attempting to cooperate.
To be sure, many pundits—and even the White House itself—seem to think that there is room for agreement on reducing the long-term budget deficit. And in theory, the parties are not as far apart philosophically on this issue as on the four questions above; both conservatives and liberals acknowledge the harm of accumulating long-term debt. But, while conservatives are positively disposed toward entitlement cuts, any deficit deal will be a fantasy if it does not include tax increases—and those are anathema to conservatives. The alternative is a budget that cuts entitlements so far that rank-and-file Democrats will never agree to it. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm of a few libertarians for defense-spending cuts should not be mistaken as a general Republican position—witness the GOP’s enthusiasm for massively expanded missile defense systems and its general support for Obama’s continued engagement in Afghanistan. The upshot is that serious deficit reduction is not going to happen anytime soon.
Perhaps Obama will be able to eke out a few legislative victories—on funding for the war in Afghanistan, for example—that will produce a modicum of bipartisan comity. But ultimately, that will be an insubstantial veneer, as both sides seek to appear as if they are occupying the political “center,” accusing the other of negotiating in bad faith while protecting their own philosophical commitments. And in that respect, pols may be representing public opinion more than you might think, as recently explained by polling expert Mark Blumenthal, who has found that when most partisans (particularly Republicans) say they are for “bipartisan compromise” they mean the other party should give in. It’s not great news, but it is the truth.