We have danced around the concept of bipartisanship the past couple of weeks on the Morning Show. Colleen Nardone has put forth the idea that President Obama has tried to reach across the aisle but “has had his hand slapped” every time. While I agree that he has publicly reached out to Republicans and they have not been cooperative, I disagree that this represents an attempt at bipartisanship.
A bipartisan approach would mean putting forth ideas and legislation that meets the principles of both parties in a way that can be adopted by a broad majority of lawmakers. Bipartisanship does not mean demanding that one party go along with the other party’s agenda, even though they fundamentally oppose it.
Look at health care, the pivotal issue in the Massachusetts senate race. We’ve been given a choice between (a) a massive expansion of the current system that everyone agrees is not working (Democrat proposal) and (b) do nothing, which obviously won’t solve any problems either (Republican position). Why have we not seen a truly bipartisan approach that both expands coverage to the uninsured (Democrat objective) AND adds large market reforms to the system that empowers individuals in the private sector (Republican objective)? Such a proposal would not get support from all of the Democrats or all of the Republicans, but it could get the kind of bipartisan support that would make filibuster-proof majorities unnecessary.
What President Obama and the Democrats did in the early part of 2009, with the listening tours and bipartisan lunch meetings, is to create the appearance of trying to work across the aisle. When the substance in the agenda did not match the tone of bipartisanship, Democrats hoped that their early appearances of cooperation would win them the benefit of the doubt, especially when measured against what they positioned as the “extreme” views and behavior amongst some of those Tea Party advocates that opposed health care over the summer.
The elections in November and now this week in Massachusetts should serve as a wakeup call to Democrats serious about governing. Government needs to be better, not bigger. If the President wants to experience legislative success going into the mid-term elections, the Congressional leadership’s approach of partisan legislation followed by political payoffs (the legal bribery of the kind we saw taking place with health care in the Senate) needs to end.
The recent elections have also given Republicans a false-sense of optimism. Anti-Obama is not a long-term strategy for governing. In a best-case scenario for Republicans, they ride a wave of dissatisfaction with the President and Congress to control of the House of Representatives this fall. Then what? Republicans would have to work with a Democrat-controlled Senate and a Democrat President. The Republican agenda needs to have a bi-partisan appeal (see the 1994 Contract with America) if winning elections is going to matter beyond having better office space and more Congressional travel perks.
Sunday brunch with the opposition party is not bipartisanship. Legislation that meets the major objectives of each party, while not compromising their core principles, would be.