Two Kinds of “Bipartisanship”

In a comment over at Booman Tribune on my post this morning about Carl Bernstein suggesting Biden might run for president on a one-term pledge to “unite Washington,” my colleague Martin Longman takes issue with my horror at the idea:

When we look back at Obama’s winning formula, the whole “we’re not a blue America or a red America” thing was that was got people paying attention to him in the first place, and it fulfilled a hope that a lot of people had that someone could unite the country and get us past the incessant bickering in Washington.

Since it’s all a crock but it’s what people seem to want, Martin suggests, Biden’s as credible claiming he can pull it off as anybody and more credible than most.

But I don’t think that’s what Obama was talking about in 2008, or what people want.

As I argued right after Obama’s first election, his appeals to bipartisanship did not seem aimed at encouraging split-the-middle deal-cutting in Washington:

Among self-conscious progressives and conservatives alike, there’s a prevailing belief that Obama’s “bipartisan” talk is largely a tactical device without real meaning—and a lingering fear that he might really mean it.

But suffusing these hopes and fears is a concept of “bipartisanship” that arguably has little to do with Obama’s: Democrats and Republicans in Washington, with their aligned lobbyists and interest groups looking over their shoulders, getting together behind closed doors and “cutting deals.” It’s the bipartisanship of legendary congressional sausage makers like Bob Dole or John Breaux who “get things done” by compromising principles and allocating influence according to Washington’s peculiar and semi-corrupt power dynamics. At its best, it’s the shabbily genteel Village Elders elitism that progressives call High Broderism. At its worst, it produces legislative abominations like virtually every big tax, energy or farm bill enacted in recent memory….

Nowhere has Obama promised Americans he would come to Washington and broker deals between the two party’s congressional leaders and interest groups. What he has done is to promise those inside and outside the two parties’ rank-and-file that he’ll force Washington to get big things done—achieving universal health care, reducing dependency on oil, addressing the downside of globalization, making public schools work, responsibly ending the war in Iraq and restoring America’s full arsenal of non-military assets. These happen to be priorities that have steadily become dominant concerns for big majorities of self-identified independents and a significant minority of self-identified Republicans as well.

Defining both parties in Washington, and their fruitless rivalries, as obstacles to progress on these priorities made Obama’s demand for change a lot more compelling at the bipartisan grassroots, where some degree of bipartisan distrust of Washington has lurked under the surface of partisan attachments for decades.

Now did Obama accomplish this mobilization of “grassroots bipartisanship” to impose its will on Washington? For the most part, no. And there’s plenty of blame to go around for that failure, from conservative media’s demonization of Obama to the president’s own difficulties in articulating his agenda to the exigencies of an economic and fiscal emergency to the big Democratic majorities in Congress that initially appeared to offer avenues for a more conventional strategy. Ultimately Obama relied almost entirely on “inside baseball” to enact the stimulus package, Dodd-Frank and Obamacare, and to guide the budget negotiations that accomplished so little at so high a price in progressive morale and unity. Obama got back on track, truth be told, by using executive action and depicting himself as the embodiment of the bipartisan grassroots as against the dysfunctional Congress and its culture.

In any event, I don’t think independents and Republican-leaners who liked Obama’s talk of bipartisanship in 2008 were thinking in terms of a master wheeler-dealer who could sit in a room with bipartisan congressional leaders and their past-and-future-lobbyist staffs and dole out the gravy in equal dollops. So I naturally don’t think that’s a winning message for Joe Biden or anyone else.

And I think the distinction is important to progressives. We shouldn’t view ourselves as supporters of one tribe in Washington–the side of government–and just debate how much government we should be willing to sacrifice to the other side, which opposes government (except for the Pentagon, of course). We ought to be the people who want to make government the instrument of the popular will, sometimes against its own “will,” even if that means occasional arguments with constituency groups attached to this or that program or with our friends the unionized public employees.

As Stan Greenberg argues, expressing and actually meaning this independence from government has become the price of admission to large segments of the electorate that otherwise might support a progressive agenda. That means our “populism” cannot simply be about using government power to counter corporate power, without some effort to reform government itself. And that’s actually a cause with bipartisan support once you get outside the Beltway.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.