Bipartisan Baloney

The right answer isn't always in the middle.

For years now, Washington pundits have been wringing their hands about the death of bipartisanship.

The problem with Washington, they say, is that it's not like the old days when everyone was willing to compromise with a back-door deal or over drinks when they hung out at the end of the day. Now everyone's too intransigent, too stubborn and wedded to their ideology to strike a deal. Why can't everyone just be reasonable?

Despite the media's rep as a bastion of left-wing thought, 21st century pundits usually frame this as "Democrats should be more reasonable" or "Obama should stand up to the left!" (I've rarely heard pundits call on W or Romney to stand up to the right). I thought I'd gotten used to that, but since Obama's re-election, the criticisms of Democrat extremism have'like a lot of conservative thought'gone straight over the cliff.

House Speaker John Boehner, for example, says Obama has proven himself totally ruthless by proposing a second-term agenda Republicans don't like. The only logical conclusion to be drawn by Obama supporting non-Republican policy goals is that his real goal is the total destruction of the Republican party!

Okay, Boehner's a politician and possibly projecting: Republicans openly acknowledged their absolute top goal for Obama's first term was to prevent his re-election, so Boehner may naturally assume that Obama has similar priorities.

The same can't be said of pundit David Brooks who makes an even more drastic argument. According to Brooks, even moderate proposals from the White House are ruthless power plays. Obama's calls for such things as Hurricane Sandy relief (which some Republicans oppose) modest steps on gun control will get support from some Republicans but not all. Obviously, therefore, he's pushing these proposals to divide the party and so destroy it! If he were serious about reaching out to Republicans he'd only put forward ideas that all Republicans would agree with!

I freely admit that as a liberal, I'd prefer Obama compromise as little as possible. He's in many ways to the right of conservatives such as Nixon and Reagan, who rank as ultra-liberals by today's right-wing standards (raising taxes, negotiating with our enemies, not embracing torture'and Nixon actually created the EPA). Trying to compromise with Republicans, as they swing increasingly rightward isn't going to take us anywhere good.

Beyond that, I don't think bipartisanship is an end in itself. Compromise is great if it gets a good result everyone can live with, but bipartisan agreement that makes things worse is a bad policy, even if it is bipartisan.

Keep in mind, we're not a bipartisan country. We have massive, serious disagreements over the right to abortion, or even birth control; the right of gays to marry, or even exist; whether our government is Bible-based or secular; whether Muslims have the same First Amendment rights as Christians; whether government should ever do anything that actually helps people (the need for endless war is, unfortunately, one of the few things on which a majority of our leaders have achieved consensus).

Pundits often insist that extremes are always bad and the real solution lies in a happy center. That can work fine on budget matters ($3.5 or $3 billion for battleships?) but there are many issues where there's no happy medium. Access to abortion and birth control, for example, affect the lives of millions of people: I don't want Democrats to compromise just to avoid being "extreme," because the pro-choice extreme is the best position. Likewise, gay couples having the same rights as heterosexual couples is the leftward "extreme" in the gay rights debate but it's the right stance to take.

Extremism isn't always the right answer, but neither is "split the difference." What matters are the merits of our positions, not whether they're extreme or somewhere in the middle.

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Updated May 22, 2018 1:43 AM UTC | More details


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