Tag Archives: bipartisanship

Ezra Klein Is Right

Ezra Klein is becoming one of my favorite pundits, thanks to columns in the New York Times like this one from late April, in which (in an aside) he pointed out that America “does have a multiparty political system, it’s just tucked inside the Senate Democratic caucus.”

The column–written before reports of the hardening of Senator Manchin’s stubborn refusal to consider any measure, no matter how good for the country, unless it is sufficiently “bipartisan”–considered the prospects of such bipartisanship in today’s degraded political environment.

As he notes,

The yearning for bipartisanship shapes the Senate in profound ways. For instance, it helps the filibuster survive. The filibuster is believed — wrongly, in my view — to promote bipartisanship, and so it maintains a symbolic appeal for those who wish for a more bipartisan Senate. “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Senator Joe Manchin wrote in The Washington Post. “The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship.”

In the absence of the filibuster, the Senate might pass more legislation, but it would do so in a more partisan way, and some, like Manchin, would see that as a failure no matter the content of the bills. “We’d all prefer bipartisanship, but for some of my colleagues, it’s a very high value,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, told me.

Klein offers a contrary view: he argues that bipartisan governance isn’t innately better than partisan governance. In fact, he asserts, it’s often worse.

Although it is true that neither party has all the answers, bipartisan support does not usually generate legislation that features–or even includes– the best ideas of Republicans and the best ideas of Democrats.  Klein points out the obvious barriers to such a happy result.

A bipartisan bill is simply a bill that members of both parties support. That means they can support it ideologically and they can support it politically. It’s that latter condition that’s toughest to fulfill: The minority party doesn’t want to give the majority big, bipartisan accomplishments, because the minority party wants the majority to lose the next election….

The set of ideas that both parties can agree on is far smaller and blander than the range of ideas that one party or the other likes. To insist on bipartisanship as a condition of passage is to believe that it’s better for Amercan politics to choose its solutions from the kids’ menu.

Klein reminds readers that virtually all Republican elected officials have signed a pledge to oppose any and all tax increases. A bipartisan approach would thus take taxes off the table.  But even when tax policies aren’t under consideration, bills with bipartisan support are generally bills that have seen their “edges” sanded off.

Compromise bills can be wise legislation, but they often result in policy too modest and mushy to solve problems. We would never want industries to release only products that all the major competitors can agree on…

Klein concedes that things haven’t always been this polarized, and bipartisanship hasn’t always produced toothless legislation. But the current search for bipartisanship–at least, as conceived by Manchin and Sinema–is really summarized by a couple of memes circulating on Facebook. One has Lincoln saying he’d like to emancipate the slaves, but only after getting buy-in from the slaveholders; the other shows an 18th-Century man considering American independence, but only if the English agree.

Mitch McConnell has made it abundantly clear that the only “bipartisanship” Republicans will recognize is surrender by the Democrats to their demands.

Manchin and his ilk misunderstand a basic premise of American politics. As Klein explains,

This is what Manchin gets wrong: A world of partisan governance is a world in which Republicans and Democrats both get to pass their best ideas into law, and the public judges them on the results. That is far better than what we have now, where neither party can routinely pass its best ideas into law, and the public is left frustrated that so much political tumult changes so little.

It will surprise no one to hear that I think Democrats should get rid of the filibuster. But it’s not because I believe Democrats necessarily have the right answers for what ails America. It’s because I believe the right answers are likelier to be found if one party, and then the other, can try its hand at solving America’s problems. Partisan governance gives both parties true input over how America is governed; they just have to win elections. Bipartisan governance, at least with parties this polarized, does the opposite: It deprives both sides of the ability to govern and elections of their consequences.




There’s a lot of talk these days about bipartisanship and the lack thereof. One the one hand, we have cartoon characters like Richard Mourdock and peevish pundits like George Will decrying the very idea. (In a recent column, Will attacks all the bad ideas that have become law as a result of the dreaded cooperation across party lines.) On the other hand, we have well-meaning citizens and numerous other pundits despairing over the disappearance of that same co-operation.

Absent from this conversation is any recognition of the difference between goal and strategy–the difference between substance and method that determines when bipartisanship is appropriate and when it is not.

No sane person (granted, the numbers falling in that category have dwindled dangerously) promotes “compromising” with, say, genocide. But neither do sane people try to hold the country hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and thereby throwing the entire globe into financial depression, in order to get their own way about something.

As with so many other aspects of our efforts to live with one another in something approximating civility, an all-or-nothing mind-set is a hindrance. The question is not: should there be bipartisanship no matter what the goal? The question is: can we work together when the common good clearly requires that we do so? Reasonable people (again, a vanishing breed) can and will disagree about what the common good requires. Bipartisanship–rightly understood–is a good-faith effort by members of both parties to determine the extent to which they agree on what the common good requires, and to come to as much agreement as possible on the methods for achieving those ends. We used to believe that getting 70% of what you want is preferable to taking your ball and bat and going home, getting none of it. (Okay, I’ve mixed my metaphors….)

There is a lot of agreement (at least rhetorically) about the nation’s problems. There is less agreement on the best way to address those problems. That’s not new. What is missing these days is a willingness to engage in the sort of give and take that gives us at least partial progress toward solving pressing issues. What’s new is the willingness of the GOP to take the country down in service of ideological purity.

Call it absence of bipartisanship, call it zealotry, call it partisanship gone wild. Whatever you call it, it bespeaks a depressing absence of the good faith and integrity citizens have a right to expect from those we entrust with the nation’s business.