Reflexive Bipartisanship Is Just as Problematic as Obstruction

In fact, both impulses share the same flaw: too little emphasis on doing what is right.

In fact, both impulses share the same flaw: too little emphasis on doing what is right.


Writing in the Washington Post last week, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann blasted Republicans, who they dub "the problem" in America, calling GOP legislators "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." Conceding that the GOP is often awful, consider the shortcomings of the centrist bipartisanship the authors recommend.

"Democrats were not exactly warm and fuzzy toward George W. Bush during his presidency," they write. "But recall that they worked hand in glove with the Republican president on the No Child Left Behind Act, provided crucial votes in the Senate for his tax cuts, joined with Republicans for all the steps taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and supplied the key votes for the Bush administration's financial bailout at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. The difference is striking."

What strikes me about that list is how much better off America would be if the Democrats had refused to help pass No Child Left Behind and its counterproductive regime of standardized tests; if they'd opposed deficit-exploding tax cuts while America financed two wars with borrowed money; if they'd opposed the civil liberties-infringing parts of the Patriot Act; and if they'd at minimum made bailout money contingent on the immediate end of "too big to fail" banks. Why should Democrats be credited with helping a bad president from the other party to pass wrongheaded policies that most people in their own party correctly regard as having made us worse off?

That is discrediting.

A lot of America's worst policies are bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans cooperated to get us into Iraq; they stand together in the War on Drugs; they are complicit in imprisoning a higher percentage of the citizenry than other free countries; they support agricultural subsidies that are costly for consumers and ruinous for Third World farmers; they've brought into being a tax code larded up with complexity that benefits wealthy individuals and corporations who can find the loopholes; they can't agree on something as obvious as implementing more severe restrictions on antibiotics in factory farming to protect the efficacy of those vital medicines for human use.

Opposition for its own sake -- the GOP has engaged in a lot of that since 2008 -- is in fact lamentable and ruinous to good government. So is reflexive bipartisanship. Deciding to reject or support legislation for the purpose of thwarting or compromising with other legislators is problematic for the same reason: votes ought to be decided on the merits of a given policy proposal.

Otherwise policy drifts in the direction of what is deemed "reasonable" or "mainstream" at a given moment. Right now, for example, a plurality of voters subscribe to the mainstream idea that we should bomb Iran, while the centrists in Congress believe that the secret, extrajudicial assassination of American citizens by the president of the United States is perfectly legal and desirable. The authors conclude by urging voters to give the parties "some impetus to return to the center." I'd urge voters to elect more members of Congress eager to advance sound policies regardless of who gets credit for them, and immoderately zealous in their insistence that civil liberties be protected; war be avoided when possible; and Madisonian checks and balances be restored.