Redefining bipartisanship

REDEFINING BIPARTISANSHIP…. At a White House event yesterday, President Obama noted, in praising the health care reform bill that passed the Senate HELP Committee, that the legislation “includes 160 Republican amendments — a hopeful sign of bipartisan support for the final product, if people are serious about bipartisanship.”

It came a day after White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that “bipartisanship” doesn’t necessarily have to mean votes from both parties; it can also mean ideas from both parties. “At the end of the day, the test isn’t whether they voted for it,” he said, referring to Republicans. “The test is whether the final product represented some of their ideas. And I think it will.”

Slate‘s John Dickerson argued that the administration really is “replacing the traditional definition of bipartisanship with their version in the hopes that people don’t notice but still like the result.”

In a 2007 interview with Frank Rich, [Obama] said: “There are some times where we need to be less bipartisan. I’m not interested in cheap bipartisanship. We should have been less bipartisan in asking tough questions about entering into this Iraq war.”

The president has made the case for health care as a national priority. If he thinks Republicans aren’t meeting the challenge of the day, then he should go his own way. That might be the right thing to do instead of engaging in “cheap bipartisanship.” But to take that route and call it bipartisan would be cheap.

Perhaps. The meaning of the word has never been especially contentious — for something to have “bipartisan support” it required at least some support from two sets of partisans. Obama and his team have decided to fiddle with the definition a bit, hoping to spin a new understanding of the word. It seems a little silly, and I’m not at all sure it’s even worth the effort.

But this broader argument is overlooking some relevant angles, both of which Matt Yglesias has written about recently. Bills that pass with bipartisan support have traditionally meant one party reaching out to moderates from the other party to put together a reasonably good-sized majority. If the usual Senate majority has around 53 members or so, finding some moderates from the other side of the aisle meant passing a bill with as many as 60 votes. It reflected a fairly broad base of support for the legislation.

Under the current circumstances, though, the expectations for the majority are skewed — Republicans have almost entirely excised moderates from their ranks, and voters have handed Democrats a huge majority. If the governing party passes a bill with 60 votes, all of a sudden, we’re told, that’s not good enough anymore. In reality, it’s a distorted standard — it’s not the Democrats’ fault Republicans have become too conservative, failed at governing, and were punished by voters.

It’s probably a mistake for the White House to try to change and/or parse the meaning of the word “bipartisan.” But it’s an even bigger mistake for the political world to hold the Democratic majority to skewed and unreasonable standards.