Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Bi-Partisanship Fallacy

There's a school of thought which greatly admires "bi-partisan" approaches to solving political problems. The idea of representatives and senators putting aside their differences to "reach across the aisle" and work together seems admirably, if only because our social training all points towards the importance of compromise in order to get along with others.

However, I'd like to question whether there are often pieces of legislation which are genuinely bi-partisan.

Some legislation is essentially non-partisan. Instituting a national alert system to help track down kidnapped children, for instance, is hardly something which has a major political faction aligned against it.

In other cases, there's legislation which applies to factions within each party -- a result of the fact that our two major political parties include sub-factions which disagree with each other on major issues. For instance, "bi-partisan" immigration reform might draw support both from the business faction within the GOP and the pro-immigration faction within the Democratic Party, while being opposed by labor focused Democrats and immigration focused Republicans.

Often, though, a supposedly bi-partisan bill is actually a bill which is very much of one political philosophy or the other, but which is for some reason able to draw enough support from the most "moderate" members of the other party, sometimes by watering down its provisions.

For instance, on the current health care legislation, the bill itself is pretty clearly a bill coming from a Democratic Party mindset. It rests on the four pillars of guaranteed issue, individual insurance mandate, community rating and subsidies for those who can't afford their own coverage. Once the idea of a "public option" (which had been a sop of sorts to those on the left who would much rather have seen a single payer plan) was dropped, there's really not much else that can be done within the context of the bill's structure to make it less expensive or more amenable to a conservative approach. The changes which have been made in the name of bi-partisanship (reducing fines for ignoring the mandate and not having insurance, etc.) don't really make the structure any more attractive to conservatives, but do make it less likely to work if liberals are actually correct that such a system could work. (Rather than being a dud as it's been in Massachusetts.)

Similarly, in the fight over the stimulus package -- the "bi-partisan" solution offered to bridge between those who thought there should be a massive spending-based stimulus and those who didn't was, "How about if we make it a little less massive." But really, if your two positions are, "We need to have a massive spending-based stimulus" and "We don't need any stimulus, and the debt will hurt the country" saying "We'll spend 700B instead of 1T" isn't really a compromise between those two positions.

To the extent that the two parties really do represent different political philosophies, bi-partisan solutions are in fact pretty rare. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, since if two governing philosophies suggest two different solutions based on differing ideas of what works -- something situated halfway in between (or a half-gutted implementation of one party's idea) is less likely to be satisfactory than either extreme.


Anonymous said...

Insightful post.

I think when the average Joe says "bi-partisan" they mean a bill which appeals to the center, one in which the moderates of both parties come together and pass a bill that "everyone" can tolerate, even if they have to put a clothespin on their nose to do so.

That being said, when the average politician says "bi-partisan", it is an empty phrase to make them seem closer to the center than they really are.

A truly bi-partisan bill, as your post implies, would require that extremists on both sides come to an agreement. But that can only happen in non-partisan bills. By definition, extremists will only agree with those of their own ideology, otherwise, they'd be centrists.

Warren said...

American political terminology seriously wiggs me out. And bipartisan is a truly american word.

Up here in canada, we'd need Tri-Partisan or Quad-Partisan depending on the region. What would they need in Israel's Knessed parliament? Like kilo-partisan, or mega-partisan.


Anonymous said...

The best government this country ever had was a Democratic president and Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. I'm thinking of the Clinton/Gingrich years. Here's the track record:

1) Federal budget surplus 1998-2000;

2) Welfare reform (i.e. meaningful cuts in the program);

3) Consistent promotion of free trade (which contributed substantially to the economic boom of that era);

4) No unwinnable wars on the other side of the world.

I make this argument in full awareness that both Clinton and Gingrich are creeps, and that they hated eachother and probably still hate eachother today. The fact remains that when these two men had to work together to run the government, they did a surpassingly excellent job. I miss those days.

Anthony said...

Anonymous - other than welfare reform, the Clinton/Gingrich years were good because of paralysis in government. Both Clinton and Gingrich wanted to do things which would put the budget into deficit; they both wanted some restrictions on free trade; they both had bigger ideas on foreign policy. But they blocked each other instead.

Clinton allowed welfare reform because he actually believed in it, and because it took away an effective issue from the Republicans.

Though that was also a good example of bipartisanship in another sense: where the partisan principles weren't directly opposed to each other. Democrats wanted to make sure that very poor people got some sort of support. Republicans wanted to break the cycle of multi-generational welfare. These two goals are *not* diametrically opposed, and thus a compromise could be worked out.

Anonymous said...

Anthony, call it "paralysis in government" or call it "bipartisanship", it's the same thing and I wish we had it again.


(I also wrote the 11:39 post, forgot to sign.)