TAYLOR WASHBURN - CONTRIBUTOR
It's hard to turn on the news or open a newspaper these
days without seeing a politician blathering on about the wonders of bipartisan
cooperation. From President George Bush to Democratic Senate Minority
leader Tom Daschle, our nation's leaders seem to be stumbling over one
another to see who can be the most conciliatory. Even fiery House Whip
Tom Delay, who once compared the EPA to the Gestapo, gave a speech to
some of his Republican colleagues on the importance of cooperating with
House Democrats. Zell Miller, a Democratic senator from Georgia, has gone
as far as to endorse the Bush tax plan. Whether hoping to get political
mileage by looking accommodating or actually true believers, the US Congress
has made the big collective leap onto the bipartisan bandwagon.
Some might argue that this is a step in the right direction.
Polls consistently show that Americans dislike so-called "partisan bickering"
in Congress and say that they are turned off by the apparent asperity
of political debate. Polls also show, however, that most Americans know
next to nothing about the way our government works. It is generally believed
that debates over issues that are of central importance to millions of
United States citizens are examples of nothing more than childish squabbling.
Should our elected officials in fact abandon their ideologies and principles
in order to create a warmer and fuzzier Washington?
Clearly any attempt to arrive at compromise requires an agreed-upon
rendezvous point where the two sides can come together. In the last decade,
this point has usually been at a vague spot somewhere just to the right
of center, with Democrats (lead by the conservative Democratic Leadership
Council) taking on a sort of mushy moderate Republicanism in order to
appeal to undecided voters. Welfare reform and free trade have mutated
from serious points of contention to silently accepted realities. Triangulation
and Dick Morris-inspired attempts to lead from behind have become the
norm. When a Democratic president tells you that "the era of big government
is over" (and considers this a positive step), you know something's wrong.
The fact is that our political parties should and must be
different from one another. Republican democracy only works when the voters
are given both significant choices and accurate representation. Today,
many issues that are still hotly contested within the American public
as a whole are essentially off limits in American politics. According
to a recent Gallup poll, 44 percent of Americans oppose the death penalty.
The issue was never raised in the presidential campaign. Democrats and
Republicans alike stalled campaign finance reform for years. Nobody is
willing to talk about the kind of single-payer health care that has been
so successful in Canada and virtually every other industrialized nation.
Segregation was propped up for decades by an unlikely bipartisan
alliance of states-rights Republicans and Southern Democrats, and it was
the Bipartisan Debate Commission that excluded Ralph Nader (who ended
up receiving almost three million votes in a painfully close election
year) from the debates. Compromises on taxes, education, and the environment
have yielded similar results.
In the absence of real options, people grow weary of politics.
Turnout declines, with the greatest drops among the less educated and
the less well off. "The only way to win them back," says the liberal erstwhile
Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "is to address their everyday problems,
and do so in a way that distinguishes Democrats from Republicans." Democrats
must be exceedingly wary when they begin to walk down the road of bipartisanship,
as it may in fact lead them to a surprising end. Certainly civility is
to be admired, but waffling on issues that involve social justice and
the lives of real working people should not be.
Unfortunately, bipartisanship, like kittens or puppy love,
is rather hard to criticize these days without looking decidedly mean
spirited. Say what you will, but I think achieving any goal requires a
little spine. Let us not forget that acrimony and heterodoxy are prerequisites
for reform. Politics is neither a game nor a publicity stunt ? it can
have a great impact on the lives and livings of American citizens. Any
cause that's important enough to give lip service to is important enough
to fight for. Its time to rethink bipartisanship.