Bipartisan Talk

WaPo discusses the word at length

Monday’s Washington Post had an oddly long take on “bipartisanship” gracing its front page. Is bipartisanship about the act of reaching out, the article asks, or is it about results—in this case, about getting some Republicans in Senate to support the stimulus bill?

This, of course, comes in the midst of serious push-pulling on the stimulus package as it goes to the Senate. (The current Senate proposal, released online yesterday, is 736 pages and estimated at nearly $900 billion.)

Recent reports on the bill have stressed that it is “facing considerable Republican resistance in the Senate,” and warned, like a label on Pandora’s box, that its final draft may “ultimately emerge through possible amendments, concessions and lingering disagreements.”

With this backdrop firmly in place, Washington Post reporters Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane give the floor to legislators and representatives of the White House, in an attempt to flesh out the B-word that is supposed to bolster the entire process.

And there’s no shortage of opinions. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) is quoted in the article as saying of Obama, “We got the sense that he was very genuine…[but] if he comes and meets with us like that and it doesn’t have an impact, it begins to hurt his credibility,” while House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), hurled back: “Being bipartisan does not mean having to lay down and say we’ll do whatever you want.”

Meanwhile, press secretary Robert Gibbs spouted, “This can’t be a one-way street. The president has done a lot to reach out.” And a White House aide defensively retorted: “There can’t be this absurd test on Obama that you try to be bipartisan, but you only got however many votes you get, so you failed.”

And Obama, for his part, said circumspectly: “…my attitude is that this is the first major piece of legislation that we’ve been working on the Hill and that over time some of these habits of consultation and mutual respect will take over.”

On the one hand, the article is an expected and even welcome contribution to the fold. Reporters and politicians alike use the word “bipartisan” to refer to anything from individual flexibility to large-scale teamwork and everything in between, so unpacking it is an interesting exercise. And the Post article cleverly uses it as a way into the style-over-substance debate that surfaced throughout the election cycle—the question about whether Obama would be able to back up his fluid rhetoric with concrete action. (Note the first verb in the headline, which evinces some healthy skepticism on this front: “As Obama Talks Of Bipartisanship, Definitions Vary.”)

For that very reason, it’s also a bit contrived to frame “bipartisanship” as a semantic issue when it’s really about process. But if we were to take a moment and play with the former, we’d still find evidence of the latter. Merriam-Webster defines “bipartisan” as “marked by or involving cooperation, agreement, and compromise between two major political parties.” Let’s see, so meetings between Obama and Senate Republicans (cooperation), reworking the bill (compromise), getting Republican votes (agreement), are all part and parcel of working the bipartisan process.

Of course, some of those things haven’t happened yet, and even with time, maybe they won’t. But it still looks like, despite the dichotomy MacGillis and Kane set up, Rep. Wamp, House Leader Hoyer, and the president himself are all at the variegated split ends of a single definition.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.