Political Culture: Partisan Bipartisanship

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

A couple of extraordinary things happened this past week. One was a big f’ing deal indeed, but the other was a bit more personal. As Sunday night’s Democratic victory on health care turned into Monday’s Republican conniption of electoral taunts and violent threats, my thoughts coalesced into one: Even if the GOP rides Teafoxlican anger to victory in the midterm elections, it will provide a thin gruel of temporary sustenance – but health care reform is forever.

And then David Frum, of all people, said pretty much the same thing. Dammit!

Well, the fact that Mr. “Axis of Evil” feels the same way I do doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wrong, does it? (Though it does give me second thoughts.) The only thing wrong with Frum’s analysis of this week’s conservative cataclysm is that it doesn’t go far enough – specifically, it doesn’t call out Republicans in Congress and Teafoxlicans outside Washington for abandoning the American principle of representative democracy. And it doesn’t congratulate the Democrats for bending over backward to create a moderate law that incorporated a number of conservative precepts, even as Republicans turned the legislative playing field into a battlefield. In fact, the Democrats over the last 14 months have made bipartisanship a one-way street, while the Republicans have made it a four-letter word.

Here is the founding fathers’ vision for a major policy debate like the one we’ve just been through – with allowances made for subtle constitutional shifts such as direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, equal protection, vast influxes of money and whatnot. A presidential nominee and his party’s congressional candidates run for election promising particular solutions to a vexing problem. If the presidency and the Congress wind up in the hands of different parties, then the two branches must balance their agendas and attempt to work together, or else accomplish little. Bipartisanship, in this case, is required to achieve the bare minimum of compromise that enables the government to continue functioning.

But let’s say, instead, that the nominee and congressional candidates of one party win big, and with that electoral mandate they set out to fulfill their promises via legislation and executive action. The opposition party can strive to shape opinion inside and outside Washington to the best of its ability, given its minority status, and to extract concessions and/or have some of its ideas included in the final legislation. The majority must accept the minority’s input to the extent required by the limits of its own mandate – or to a greater extent than that, if the majority fears for the stability of that mandate. Meanwhile, the minority accepts that elections have consequences, that the majority’s agenda reflects the will of most voters, and that the majority’s policies will be implemented in some fashion. When the legislation becomes law, both sides take at least some measure of satisfaction from the knowledge that they have represented their constituents’ interests as best they could, and have engaged in constructive debate that resulted in a balanced reflection of the nation’s needs.

Here, on the other hand, is the Republican Party’s vision of bipartisanship, as seen through the prism of their minority status:

Even as the health-care bill neared final passage last weekend, the New York Times documented that Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans, decimated by the results of the 2008 election, had decided even before President Obama’s inauguration that their path to resurrection as a party would wind through a thicket of malevolent opposition, delay and obstruction. Rather than engaging in honest ideological debates, attempting to gain concessions on the stimulus, health care and other issues via negotiation and compromise, and then persuading the midterm electorate that they could be trusted to take the helm once again, Republicans chose to throw at the Democrats every rhetorical sleight of hand and parliamentary trick they could muster, in order to slow down the majority’s agenda and keep too much legislation from passing before the next election.

In this context, last summer’s health-care negotiations in the Senate Finance Committee can only be seen in retrospect as an intentional GOP deceit, a clock-killing device to get to the August recess – when Teafoxlicans in the hinterlands could be unleashed at the unruly town-hall meetings that put the “mock” in democracy. It must be said that Republicans played this hand masterfully, if despicably, right up through the election of Scott Brown in January – an event that sent Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid back to the drawing board and left Republicans giddy, thinking they had pulled off a goal-line stand. Even when that proved not to be the case – even when the Democrats improbably regrouped, and sent out their “Refrigerator” Perry of a reconciliation strategy to ram health care down the poor Teafoxlicans’ throats and into the end zone – the GOP stuck to its strategy of delay and obstruction.

They were still at it last night, for crying out loud – 36 hours after Obama’s signing ceremony – forcing a “vote-a-rama” on idiotic amendments to the reconciliation bill that kept the Senate in session past 3 in the morning. (There are few things on television as riveting as C-SPAN coverage of a 3 a.m. quorum call, as I discovered late last night — in between giggles over Glenn Beck’s nonsensical pleading with his audience, “Don’t engage in violent acts … because throwing bricks and making threats is exactly what those radical Communists in the government need you to do in order to maintain their grip on power.”)

While the Republicans’ machinations and deceptions and, finally, refusal to negotiate in good faith have been well-documented, what’s been forgotten in all the sturm und drang over health care is the Democrats’ single-handed moderation of their own policy prescriptions over the last year. Teafoxlicans nationwide have convinced themselves that Democrats are to blame for the lack of bipartisanship in the law, but in fact the majority repeatedly steered its reform efforts to the right. The structure of the new insurance exchanges, the defeat of a public option, malpractice reform, Medicare reimbursements to doctors and hospitals – on all of these issues and more, Democrats handed out what might have been considered major concessions to conservative orthodoxy, if only Republicans had quit holding their breath long enough to claim them. (Though just yesterday a statement from the office of Charles Grassley of Iowa, key perpetrator of the Republicans’ ruse of a Finance Committee negotiation, claimed that “the health care legislation … includes provisions Grassley co-authored to impose standards for the tax exemption of charitable hospitals for the first time.”)

Of course, once the GOP took its ball and went home, Democrats had to moderate some elements of their bill just to get to 60 votes within their own caucus – replete as it is with insurance-industry toadies like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, and cover-your-ass types from red states like Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu. But there’s no denying that Obama, as he worked with Pelosi and Reid to craft the reconciliation bill following the February “summit” at Blair House, inserted a number of Republican ideas even though he knew he had no hope of attracting Republican votes.

History will show that the health-care reform legislation passed this week was, indeed, a thoroughly moderate effort – one whose deficiencies most likely will require more progressive (and certainly not more conservative) fixes in years to come. History – or, at least, that history which is not taught in Texas public schools — also will reflect negatively on the roles of Republican politicians in misleading their constituents on the contents of the reform, and will take Teafoxlicans to task for their incendiary rhetoric over the last year and their thuggish flailing over the last week. In the coming decades the malevolent videotape of Boehner on the House floor and the Fox boys in their TV lairs, and of the general screaming and spitting and taunting and rock-throwing and gun-toting of the American right, will take its place alongside footage of Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin and Bull Connor and Selma. Meanwhile, the details of the policy debate over Universal (or close to it) Health Care, and the “process” issues on which conservatives focused in their last gasp of obstruction, will be largely forgotten — as were the processes and particulars of legislating Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Civil Rights acts.

Ask any legislator who voted for civil rights and then lost his job in the furious backlash against that legislation, and he’ll tell you that he – and the country – got a pretty good deal in the trade. The same is true with health care. The jury’s still out on how the events of the last week will translate into electoral politics come fall, but even if Republicans score big gains in Congress this November their victory will be as petty and shallow as their vision of governance has been. And health care is forever, with or without them.