Partisanship

Maurine Dowd :

The president had lofty dreams of playing the great convener and conciliator. But at a fund-raiser in Minneapolis, he admitted he’s just another combatant in a capital full of Hatfields and McCoys. No compromises, just nihilism.

If he wins the election, “the fever may break,” he said. “My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again.”

Dowd’s concept of politics, like that of many NY-Washington centrist types, relies heavily on the idea that you need to compromise to get things done, and that people compromise fundamentally in order to be nice and cooperative, and that the terms of reasonable compromise are set by NY-Washington centrist types, and our politics are disfunctional if they don’t follow this method.  The center-left narrative is that government has failed in recent years because contemporary Republicans are uniquely nihilistic and would not allow anything to get done, or that both Parties are hopelessly unwilling to make “reasonable” compromises.  Yet if the sides agreed about what is “reasonable,” they would not need to compromise.  Such vulgar things as partisanship and public opinion continue to be part of our politics, and things continue to get done, for better and worse; in fact, the Pelosi-Obama tandem got far more done than most American power-brokers.

They passed a stimulus and health care reform; here Obama did not meaningfully compromise, because his Party held all the power, and he didn’t need to.  He would have liked Republican votes in order to give him cover.  NY-Washington centrist types would also have liked this, preferring as they do that the Parties get together and agree on one policy so that the public has no choice but to accept it.*  Yet to a compromise that would have gotten GOP votes, when they did not actually need them, would have been for Obama and Pelosi selling out their base.  Similarly, voting for the stimulus/health care bills that emerged would have been a betrayal for a GOP officeholder.

When Republicans got more power, Pelosi-Obama were still able to pass agenda items that were intrinsically popular enough, such as financial regulation, DADT repeal, and the START treaty.  The Republicans could not or would not just “deny Obama victories,” or make legislation unpopular simply by opposing it (just as they couldn’t make the bank bailouts popular just by supporting them).  Obama’s and Congress’s approval ratings went up in tandem during the lame duck session when substantial amounts of legislation passed.  Partisan politics may be a zero-sum game, but the two Parties’ approval ratings can go up and down together, and it isn’t clear why the “nihilist” technique of making them both go down at the same time should always work better than the do-gooder compromising technique that can make them both go up together.

What Parties compromise on and what they obstruct will depend partly on what position is popular with the public, and partly on what their own convictions or base will and won’t allow.

* In the case of the stimulus, the bill was popular at the time, but Pelosi-Obama presumably wanted GOP buy-in so the opposition couldn’t criticize him in case it failed, or was perceived to fail.  Obama therefore did what he could to pressure the GOP to buy in, raising the costs to them in case the policy did in fact work; but he and Pelosi were not willing to water down the stimulus enough to actually get Republican support, or else such support was unachievable, so they only compromised enough to get the moderate wing of their own Party on board.

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