A large swath of the Washington punditocracy have pushed the meme of bi-partisanship. The new Obama administration often seems aligned with this effort. But in passing the stimulus bill “bipartisanship” has too often meant compromising with right-wingers for no reciprocal benefit. It seems to be revealed hollow when the votes are counted. What is this really about?
I think Obama–perhaps unconsciously–sees “bipartisanship” in much the way Lincoln did. In his 1862 message to Congress, paving the way for the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln memorably said, “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” The idea that we are in thrall to issues and ideas and we must find ways to escape this is the highest and best concept of “bipartisanship.” Of course while these lofty words were spoken, one million Americans were dying in civil war.
Contrast this with FDR’s approach. In the 1936 election he repeatedly drew the lines: attacking the “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking. Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” No bi-partisanship here! And this got results in the heartland. As one worker put it in 1936, Roosevelt “is the first man in the White House to understand that my boss is a son of a bitch.”
The key challenge for Obama is not to make compacts and compromises with the Washington elite, but to forge an electoral realignment in the country. For this goal, his rhetoric of “bipartisanship” is superficial in Washington and, outside of Washington, actually works against him. What’s needed isn’t less partisanship, but more. For decades the Republicans have manipulated millions into voting against their basic economic interests while accusing their opponents of “partisanship.” Obama has an excellent opportunity to bring this to an end.