The perils of bipartisanship

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By Rick Howell

    It’s hip to be “bipartisan.” It has been for quite some time now. But is it really all it’s cracked up to be?

    During his successful run for the presidency, Barack Obama got a lot of mileage out of talking about both parties “working together,” politicians in Washington abandoning their “old ways” and “getting things done” for the American people.

    Obama was successful for so many different reasons, it’s hard to say how much credit that kind of talk deserves for his win. But that sentiment - that appeal to “bipartisanship” - obviously did resonate with a lot of people and reflected what many would like to see: both parties putting aside partisan goals and achieving something jointly for the American people.

    Okay, fine. But as I’ve heard this kind of talk over the years, something inside me says…wait a minute. Isn’t our two-party political system built on a competition of ideas? Aren’t the voters supposed to weigh those ideas and decide, at election time, which policies they favor?

    Any basic civics course would require a “yes” answer to both questions. Would voters even have much of a choice if both parties pretty much preached the same thing? If you take the “both parties working together” mantra too far, if you run it out to its ultimate conclusion, aren’t you talking about a one-party state?

    From the very beginnings of this republic, “factions” (labeled as such in the Federalist Papers) developed along competing ideas: Thomas Jefferson wanted a small and limited government devoted to agriculture; Alexander Hamilton favored a strong central government with a national banking system.

    “Factions” later became political parties, and competition continued to center around differing visions about how our republic should define itself.

    During his presidency - especially during his first One Hundred Days - Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued no appeals for “bipartisanship.” Having beaten the Republican incumbent and defeated Hoover’s belief in no federal action whatsoever in the face of the Great Depression, Roosevelt moved forward in a very partisan way.

    He reminded voters and the Congress of who had won the election, and demanded that his program be passed. He didn’t care if Republicans didn’t like him for it. He knew whose views had triumphed and whose policies had been rejected - and he was determined to govern that way.

    So, all the talk of being bipartisan, of “reaching across the aisle,” seems to be little more than a modern phenomenon. Obama tried all the bipartisan stuff when he attempted to get his economic stimulus package passed with the support of both parties. He got a total of three Republican votes in the Senate and absolutely none in the House.

    On the budget that’s now being considered, the final tally is likely to be about the same. Why should this popular president, duly elected by a clear majority of voters and by a landslide in the Electoral College, pander to conservative Republicans when they only show their contempt?

    He has the votes to pass his programs and he and the Democrats in Congress should flex that muscle. If the party of Rush Limbaugh wants to also be the party of endless filibusters, fine, let them choose that path. They’ll only reap more of the same kind of voter rejection they’ve experienced in the last two election cycles.

    It’s time that President Barack Obama started acting more like FDR; get rid of the feel-good bipartisan stuff and give the Republicans what they deserve and what the voters chose for them: a whipping.

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    Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.