Partisanship Not a Bad Thing
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Feb 23, 2009
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama ran as the post-partisan candidate who could bring Democrats and Republicans together to solve our national problems. And Obama has fulfilled part of that promise by retaining Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and nominating former Congressman Ray Lahood (R-IL) as Secretary of Transportation and Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) as Secretary of Commerce.
Obama has also shown respect for Republicans by traveling to Capitol Hill to meet with them on the stimulus and by having Republicans over for social occasions, whether to watch the Super Bowl or to have drinks. The latter seems an attempt to insure that the political does not become personal which has too often been the case the last twenty years. He seems to model himself on Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill who attacked each other and his policies during the workday but would get together for drinks and stories after 5 pm. As O’Neill would say “after 5 o’clock we can be friends; but before 5, it’s politics.”
Yet, the stimulus package passed on party line votes as 97.8% of Democrats supported the stimulus while 98.6% of Republicans opposed it. Therefore, how could Obama have created a more bipartisan package and what does this mean for the remainder of the congress?
Primarily, Obama has to remember that actions speak louder than words. Obama is to be commended for meeting with Republicans and adding tax cuts to his stimulus package. However, Obama met with Republicans after House Democrats wrote the bill, and the tax cuts were cuts favored by Democrats and not those focused on business that Republicans favor.
Obama needs to remember Lyndon Johnson’s adage of “If I’m not there for the takeoff, don’t expect me for the landing.” As both Senate Majority Leader and President, Johnson would bring members of both parties together and negotiate a bill. By including legislators in writing the bill, Johnson got their “buy-in” which created bipartisan majorities for major legislation.
Obama, however, supported a stimulus bill of, by, and for Democrats and when Republicans objected said “I won.” This ruined a great opportunity. Senate Republicans were not talking filibuster, and many Republicans in the House and Senate indicated a willingness to support it. Yet, the heavy handed manner in which Congressional Democrats handled the bill alienated Republicans and led to their unified opposition. In short, no Republicans were there for the takeoff so it should not be a surprise that only three were there for the landing.
A more inclusive approach would have split the Republicans making it easier to pick up Republican support now and in the future. Moreover, it would have created more “buy-in” into the Obama experiment and a greater willingness to cooperate which would help advance other items on his agenda. Instead, Republicans are united against a big government takeover of the economy making his task more difficult.
As Obama moves forward he can learn from the stimulus and try to create bipartisan majorities by including Republicans in the writing of legislation. Yet, Obama also needs to remember that partisanship is not a dirty word. The idea that we can get both parties together to agree on how to solve the financial crisis, expand health care accessibility but control costs, and reduce global warming is unrealistic. The parties stand for different principles and members represent districts with conflicting interests and reconciling all of them is impossible.
Plus, there are benefits to partisanship. First, it provides clear responsibility. By passing this bill, the Democrats now “own” the economy and the public can reward or punish accordingly in 2010 and 2012. Second, partisanship can make for better bills. Republican stimulus proposals forced Obama to better explain his policy while Republican critiques led to the removal of some spending that had no stimulative effect.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the fact that Obama is talking to Republicans and attempting to separate the personal from the political. However, partisanship and conflict are not problems. They are democracy at work.
Article originally appeared in the Jackson Sun on February 13, 2009