…But exactly what isn’t known in a country where boldness and bipartisanship are most often incompatible
By Barry Gordon 01/06/2011
A new era is about to begin, with the Republican Party in control of one house of Congress and with an enhanced ability to work its will in the other, thanks to archaic institutional rules like the filibuster and the secret hold. About the only true power President Obama still holds legislatively rests in his willingness to use the bully pulpit and the veto pen. Based on the recent tax deal, he apparently has chosen to put those weapons aside and work for as much incremental change as he can get given the “political realities.”
The president’s mantra recently has been that an effort to work together is what the people want. It is clearly the message he has drawn from the midterm election debacle. And if we believe the polls, he may well be right. Not only do the American people seem to have a penchant for bipartisanship, but we also claim to prefer divided government over unified control by one party. In a recent Harris Poll, twice as many respondents felt that divided government had a positive, as opposed to negative, impact on the country (about one-third felt it didn’t really matter or didn’t have an opinion on the subject). The 2010 midterms represented the 18th time out of the last 30 elections in which we chose to give the party that does not hold the White House control over at least one branch of Congress.
Voting for divided government may be our way of forcing bipartisanship. Somehow, we have collectively decided that solutions that have the support of both parties are preferable to those that do not. In a sense, we’re saying that half a loaf is not only better than none — it’s also better than a full loaf. We seem to like solutions of the “split the baby” variety. But those who know their Bible may recall that Solomon never actually split the baby; he merely threatened to. And common sense tells us that if he had really cut the baby in two, no one would have been terribly pleased with the outcome.
Lately, I’ve been reading a number of books about the recent subprime lending crisis and one theme consistently stands out. Both parties were responsible. There was virtually a perfect storm of bipartisanship. Democrats wanted to do everything possible to ensure the availability of affordable housing for lower-income and working class families, especially for racial and ethnic minorities.
Republicans wanted an unfettered free-market economy with minimal regulatory oversight. Rather than create another government program, the solution was to create a “government-sponsored enterprise” (GSE) like Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, private companies accountable to its shareholders but responsible for furthering public policy goals. And how did that work out?
The implicit government guarantee made the GSEs unfair competitors against the private-sector competition. Yet the ever-present need to increase profits and retain market share led Fannie and Freddie to emulate some of the worst practices that originated on Wall Street. Democrats refused to rein in the GSEs and the Republicans (and some Democrats) refused to meaningfully regulate the Wall Street firms.
As I said, a perfect storm.
A bipartisan solution to a problem can be better in some instances, but it may also be worse. Often it will merely kick the can down the road until the day when the problem is addressed again with a more comprehensive approach. Of course, that day hardly ever arrives. Bipartisanship ruled in the first half of the 19th century between the Whigs and the Democrats when it came to the issue of slavery. True solutions were delayed or compromised away. But as we all know, the problem wasn’t solved until it was addressed head-on by Lincoln and the new Republican Party. One could say that the Civil War was one of the most partisan acts in all of American history.
As problems grow more complex, more global and more imminent, we may have to acknowledge that half-measures may not be good enough. But, for now, the people appear to be caught in an ongoing debate with themselves. According to the polls, we want less government and lower taxes. We also want Social Security, Medicare, or at least some version of the social safety net. We also want to lower the deficit and reduce the national debt.
All of this would seem to suggest that while we may be divided as to the role we want government to play, we all want government to do something. Every one of the things I’ve listed will require bold action — including reducing the size of government itself. But boldness and bipartisanship have historically been incompatible partners.
Thus we create a kind of vicious circle. We don’t trust government so we try to find ways to limit it by seeking, or even requiring, bipartisanship. But the timid solutions that generally emerge from a bipartisan compromise are more likely than not to be ineffective, and the problems that we seek to solve often remain or grow even larger. So we naturally conclude that government is incapable of solving problems and trust it even less.
Maybe it’s time to break the circle.
Barry Gordon teaches political science at Cal State LA and is the co-host of “City Beat” on KPAS. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.