Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Significance of the election, part 2: the role and meaning of bipartisanship

One of the recurrent themes in this election cycle was "bipartisanship," which I have put in scare quotes for a reason.

Out-of-touch buffoons such as David Broder have this as their mantra, ditto Joe Lieberman, and they interpret it to mean such silly things as (a) if the Republicans commit crimes and election fraud (Abramoff, robocalls, etc.) we must say that both parties do it equally, and (b) if Bush wants to trash the Constitution while actually undermining public safety, and if he wants to say that anyone who opposes him is a traitor, we must be willing to go along with him so that we are not "partisan."

Defining bipartisanship relative to where the players actually stand gives them an incentive to go as far to the extreme as possible, since placating them becomes the norm without regard to whether they are being reasonable. One needs an independent definition of how reasonable each side is being, in order to create incentives to be reasonable.

Actual bipartisanship is needed in this country, however. On foreign affairs, since it's not my specialty I'll just say that we need a rational debate about the various choices we have that is not hamstrung by ugly aspersions. Domestically, we need a deal in which the Republicans agree to raise taxes and the Democrats agree to cut entitlements growth. Neither party can prescribe bad medicine by itself, even the one that it is more willing to prescribe.

This type of public-spirited dealmaking has happened before. Indeed, in the 1980s it happened repeatedly. The 1983 Reagan-O-Neill Social Security compromise is the classic example, but consider as well the 1982 and 1984 deficit reduction packages, Gramm-Rudman Hollings, and the 1990 budget deal. Not to mention the 1988 enactment of catastrophic coverage in Medicare, which, while a political disaster that led to its repeal the following year, involved responsible bipartisanship (the new benefit was fully financed not only in budgetary terms but generationally - seniors didn't get a freebie as in 2003).

You need responsible adults on both sides for this to happen, however. We don't know for sure if the Democrats are willing to be responsible adults, but we know beyond any possible doubt that the current Republican leadership is not willing to do anything even remotely fiscally responsible.

The most important thing about Democratic victories is the following. One can hope and pray that defeat leads the Republicans to reconsider their course, throw out the current cabal of incompetent, criminal lunatics, and go back to where they were with the likes of Reagan, Bush Sr., Dole, Baker, Darman, Stockman, etc.

This is a lot to hope for, and I don't know if the party's internal dynamics permit it. But one trigger of their march to madness (although there were surely deeper sociological causes) was the "lesson" of 1992, whether true or false, that Bush Sr. lost because he raised taxes, and then the "lesson," again whether true or false, that the other course led to their 1994 victories.

I don't know how many defeats it will take for the Republicans to get there. One bad set of midterm election results might not be enough. But a lot rides on whether the Republicans can once again become capable of responsible bipartisanship, so that at least there is a chance of rational policymaking. Just having the Democrats run everything is not the answer, due both to the flaws in their policies, such as their resistance to making the entitlements sustainable, and to the political difficulties they would face even if they tried to be responsible all by themselves.

In the interim, fake bipartisanship has nothing to offer either the Democrats tactically or the nation substantively.

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