Bipartisanship Has Sailed

Political consensus is not an unalloyed good

In Politico yesterday, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen had a good, interesting piece about why, in their words, “bipartisanship gets talked about more than it gets practiced.” The story outlines some of the reasons that bipartisanship is effectively impossible in the modern Congress and explains why politicians who understand this perfectly well play along with the ritual anyway.

But what the story could have done—but didn’t—is challenge the presence of “bipartisanship” itself in our Hall of Political Virtues. That’s too bad, because while there are merits to bipartisanship, it is not an unalloyed good, and the exalted status that the press—and the public—accords to it has become an obstacle to sensible policy-making.

Leaving aside high-water polling marks for one side or another, there’s plenty of evidence that many Americans want a “centrist” political leadership (for one example, see Andrew Gelman’s conclusion that John Kerry would not have gained votes by shifting left during the 2004 election, but George Bush would have). Bipartisanship is valued—and not just by the press—because it’s seen as encouraging outcomes that are consistent with that desire.

This instinct is coloring the way people respond to the current health care debate. According to a new Washington Post poll, 71 percent of respondents said Barack Obama and Democrats “should try to change the health care reform bill so some Republicans in Congress will also support it.” But the very next question produced a seemingly incoherent response, one that underscores the limits of bipartisanship: 62 percent of those polled said Republicans “are not making a good faith effort to cooperate” in negotiations.

Why would anyone want Obama and the Democrats to make concessions to people who aren’t operating in good faith? Because Americans value political consensus and moderation, and the language of “bipartisanship” is the only way we have to talk about those goals. But here’s the trouble: for the reasons outlined in the Politico story and elsewhere—more disciplined and coherent parties, increased ideological polarization, a strategic stance of opposition by the minority, and a general shift to more parliamentary behavior—bipartisanship has become largely unachievable; there’s no way to negotiate with someone who’s not interested in making a fair deal.

Many political and media elites find this distressing, and continue to celebrate bipartisanship. This is a peculiar act of denial. It also misses the point. Just because “bipartisanship” is a dead letter doesn’t mean that the underlying ideal—the inclusion of diverse perspectives in policy-making—is lost, too. Again, consider the health care debate. Democrats in Congress hold majorities large enough that they could pass a bill on a party-line vote and give it a wider margin than some past “bipartisan” measures.

How did they gain such large majorities? Partly through bad opponents and good luck, but partly by accepting a wide range of views in their caucus—such a wide range that, even in an era of increased party discipline, they’re having a heck of a time agreeing on how to address their top priority. The center didn’t go anywhere; it just happens to be in one party at the moment. When Republicans recover—as they surely will—it will be because balance has been restored.

The word “bipartisan” acquired value not because of what it literally meant—“got votes from Republicans and Democrats,” but because of what it signified—“reflects a broad range of political views.” But the word is no longer the best way to express that idea (if it ever was). So the press shouldn’t use it that way, and shouldn’t hold it up as an exalted virtue on par with actually getting policy decisions right.

As for what the press should do, coming clean with the public would be a start. Explaining that “bipartisan” policies aren’t in the works is a good first step. Explaining why we shouldn’t be worried about that fact would be even better.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.