When (and why) bipartisanship is impossible

WHEN (AND WHY) BIPARTISANSHIP IS IMPOSSIBLE…. Fox News personality Dana Perino, best known for her work as the Bush White House’s final press secretary, complained this week that Democrats refused to “reach out” to Republicans during the debate over health care reform. GOP officials, she said, offered good “ideas,” but the Democratic majority wouldn’t listen.

As a substantive matter, Perino is deeply confused, and seems to have forgotten about months of outreach to the GOP and the incorporation of all kinds of GOP ideas into the final policy.

But more important that Perino’s lack of familiarity with current events is the larger point about bipartisan policymaking. It doesn’t fit well into the Fox News narrative, but Ezra Klein noted yesterday that over the last century, Democrats consistently moved to the right to try and garner more support, and “Republicans moved further right every time Democrats tried.”

When Truman tried to pass what was, in effect, Medicare for all, Republicans balked and said they preferred a more market-based pay-or-play system. When Clinton endorsed the market-based pay-or-play system, Republicans balked again, saying that they preferred a mandate/subsidies kind of system. When Obama endorsed the mandate/subsidies system crafted by Republicans in the ’90s and adopted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, Republicans balked again, this time saying they don’t want to address the problem at all.

As Ezra concluded:

So over the last 80 years or so, Democrats have responded to Republican opposition by moving to the right, and Republicans have responded by moving even further to the right. In other words, Democrats have been willing to adopt Republican ideas if doing so meant covering everybody (or nearly everybody), while Republicans were willing to abandon Republican ideas if sticking by them meant compromising with the Democrats.

But because Democrats were insistent on getting something that would help the uninsured, they’ve ended up looking like the partisans, as they keep pushing bills Republicans refuse to sign onto.

It’s quite a racket.

It’s also, by the way, a model with broader applicability. As we’ve seen repeatedly with a wide variety of policy efforts, Democrats are interesting in solving a policy problem and are willing to negotiate to get something done. Republicans are interesting in preserving ideological purity and ignoring policy problems that can’t be solved through tax cuts for millionaires.

The political world need not ponder why bipartisanship seems so impossible. The answer is fairly obvious.