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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Empty bi-partisanship

Paul Krugman captures why, at least as to the stimulus debate, the talk of bipartisanship is vacuous. Responding to David Broder's insistence that the bill needs "the best ideas from both parties," Krugman said:

You see, this isn’t a brainstorming session — it’s a collision of fundamentally incompatible world views. If one thing is clear from the stimulus debate, it’s that the two parties have utterly different economic doctrines. Democrats believe in something more or less like standard textbook macroeconomics; Republicans believe in a doctrine under which tax cuts are the universal elixir, and government spending is almost always bad. Obama may be able to get a few Republican Senators to go along with his plan; or he can get a lot of Republican votes by, in effect, becoming a Republican. There is no middle ground.

Absolutely right, at least if we are talking about substantive, as opposed to procedural, bipartisanship. If the GOP believes the bill has too much spending and not enough tax cuts (because that is what their economic principles suggest) and Obama believes the balance is about right (because that is what his economic principles suggest), there is no where to go--no way to create a bill with the best ideas of both parties.

Note that none of this blames Republicans over Democrats. While I share the Democratic economic views, others do not and maybe they are right and we are wrong. However we got here, there is an impasse. And my point is there is nothing wrong with this state of affairs. It is why we had an election three months ago in which the public put one side in power. It is why we will have another election in 21 months that will serve as a mini-referendum on this whole debate. I am not trying to argue that substantive bipartisanship is bad. I am trying to suggest that it may not be possible in some situations and to blithely insist that it is the inherent absolute good, in a situation of fundamental disagreement, misunderstands the situation and focuses on the wrong debate.

I think I am turning into a parliamentarian supporter of a parliamentary system.

Quick Update:

In one of his series of sit-downs yesterday, Obama told Charles Gibson that he is not interested in "bipartisanship for bipartisanship's sake." I think too many people, especially in the media, are.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 4, 2009 at 07:36 AM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


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I'm not getting how the fact that the two sides have different views means that compromise is not possible. You only need compromise when the middle position is beyond the preferred alternatives of either side.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Feb 4, 2009 5:30:35 PM


Thanks for the reply.

First, my understanding is that some Republicans want more infrastructure spending, not less, but they disagree about true infrastructure spending versus make-work infrastructure spending, i.e., highway money for their state rather than resodding the National Mall. That may be an argument about where to deliver the pork and it may be facetious but it does not sound like a principled argument to me. The absence of principles equals the opportunity for compromise.

Second, by "the better Republican ideas" I meant, literally, the two ideas that I highlighted (and just those two): (1) providing aid to the states (which Democrats put in the bill, GOP Governors want, and conservative economists like Martin Feldstein say is good) in the form of loans (Mitch McConnell's idea) and (2) a payroll tax cut (which puts money into the hands of poor people like Democrats have proposed).

Moderate GOP strategists like Reihan Salam think those ideas are good, conservative Republicans have actually proposed them, and they, as a matter of empirics, would work. I can't see what would lead Democrats to resist those two tweaks to the bill, because they would put money in the hands of poor Democratic voters, keep state government employees (likely Democrats) employed, maintain Medicare and Medicaid commitments of states, and pledge states to pay the money back to the federal government once their coffers fill up again.

Perhaps no Republicans would jump on-board. But Republicans would look mighty stupid in 2010 claiming they voted against a bill and proposed better alternatives when those better alternatives were included in the bill they voted against.

Posted by: Jack Krevins | Feb 4, 2009 3:56:51 PM


First, you may be right. But from what I have read, I do not get the sense that the changes you are suggesting would bring even a decent number of Republicans on board, especially in the Conference bill's return to the House. I am hearing too many statements from GOP Senators that government spending on infrastructure is not stimulative and does not create jobs. Maybe that is posturing and those changes would be enough; I do not know. But these compromises are "shrewd" only if they get some decent number of Republicans on board--otherwise, it is not a "compromise."

Second, you use the term "better Republican ideas." Well, what if the Democrats do not consider them good or better ideas? Especially if it will not work to get the other side on board. To take them, just because, seems to me to be bipartisanship for its own sake.

Third, I want to re-emphasize that I am not blaming anyone for this state of affairs. I do not blame or criticize Republicans for sticking to their principles, misguided though I believe they are. And I would be very critical of Obama or any Democrats who, when this is all over and the legislation passes with little or no Republican congressional support, start screaming about the Republicans refusing to engage in bipartisanship or behaving in a partisan way.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 4, 2009 3:19:58 PM

As far as I can tell, Obama could strip out the non-stimulative spending from the spending side of the bill while focusing on education, alternative energy, infrastructure, and greening of the economy (including the transmission grid and weatherization). He could also import the better Republican ideas on the tax cut side such as giving loans instead of grants to state governments to forestall unemployment and slashes in government services and providing the majority of the tax cut boost in the form of a payroll tax cut this year. The permanent spending that the Republicans are carping about could be put into the unpcoming omnibus budget so that those expenditures are on-budget rather than off-budget expenditures. Obama has two opportunities for this to happen, in the Senate and in the joint conference. Incompatibility of worldviews would not seem to be in operation if shrewd compromises are made.

Posted by: Jack Krevins | Feb 4, 2009 2:48:39 PM

It's funny to see Obama now claim that he's not for "bipartisanship for bipartisanship's sake." He sang a different tune throughout the campaign and transition (see, for example, his ode to bipartisanship in his speech at the pre-Inaugural dinner in honor of John McCain).

Of course, a President getting elected on promises of bipartisanship only to govern from the ideological wing of the party is nothing new -- many argue that Bush did the same thing.

That said, Obama ought to watch his steps carefully. To the extent that the public elected him on the basis of his persistent invocation of bipartisanship or a "new kind of politics," he'll be punished at the polls if the public ultimately feels let down.

Posted by: Adam | Feb 4, 2009 2:05:36 PM

"I think I am turning into a parliamentarian."

Perhaps, but as one partial to the House of Lords (keeping in mind the definition of a parliamentarian as 'an expert in the rules and usages of a *deliberative* assembly'), owing to its possession of characteristics common to "deliberative democracy" and thus the conditions conducive to extended discussions of such matters as can sometimes occur in law blog posts [cf.: Dawn Oliver, 'The Modernization of the United Kingdom Parliament,' in Jeffrey Jowell and Dawn Oliver, eds., The Changing Constitution (5th ed., 2004): 268-279, and John Parkinson's article, 'The House of Lords: a deliberative democratic defence', Political Quarterly 78(3) (July-September 2007): 374-381, available here: http://www-users.york.ac.uk/%7Ejrp12/HoL%20PQ.pdf ].

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 4, 2009 8:57:56 AM

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