In defense of partisanship

It might be nice to bring the two parties together, but passing legislation is the first priority.

ItâÄôs nice to be idealistic; it can give you that warm, fuzzy feeling deep in the cockles of your heart. But at a certain point, youâÄôve got to admit that ideals can only take you so far. Eventually, you need to take real action. WeâÄôre only a few weeks into the Obama administration, but the new boss has reached that point: itâÄôs time for him to get his hands dirty and get some bills through Congress. President Barack Obama rolled into office on nice, shiny promises of bipartisanship. And thatâÄôs fine, to a point. The vision of the two parties throwing aside their ideological differences, coming together and leading us to a new era of frolicking through sunny fields: striking, really. Also, naive. It takes both sides, and itâÄôs clear that congressional Republicans arenâÄôt interested. Of course, even figuring out what we mean by âÄúbipartisanshipâÄù can be difficult. It seems that weâÄôve reached a point where bipartisanship stands for âÄúDemocrats give in to every Republican demand.âÄù Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been wandering the cable news circuit, complaining that he and his GOP colleagues havenâÄôt been able to write the proposed stimulus bill themselves. Perhaps someone should remind the honorable senator that elections have consequences. ItâÄôs all well and good to solicit Republican input, but at the end of the day, Democrats have run the table in the last couple of elections, and they get to set policy. Democracy is tricky like that. Congressional Republicans havenâÄôt had the courage to approach the debate about the stimulus package in any sort of intellectually honest way, trying to make the case that we donâÄôt need such a bill. Instead, the constant refrain has been some variation on, âÄúitâÄôs not a stimulus bill, itâÄôs a spending bill.âÄù (Sen. John McCain has been particularly proficient with that one). ThatâÄôs just silly âÄî the point of a stimulus bill is to, well, spend. It would be interesting to see the GOP present their version of a spending-free stimulus. Oh, wait. TheyâÄôve done that already. McCain made an especially delicious proposal on the Senate floor: all tax cuts, all the time. He brought an amendment that would have stripped nearly every last drop of job-creating spending out of the stimulus bill, with less-effective tax cuts filling the remainder. To call that a stimulus bill flies in the face of reason. Of course, the amendment failed when it came to the floor for a vote, but the voting breakdown is significant: no Republican voted against it, and no Democrat voted in favor. And thereâÄôs nothing wrong with that. The two parties have rather differing priorities. It does, though, underscore the fundamental futility in caring too much about empty bipartisanship. When the rubber hits the road, itâÄôs obvious how nearly every member of the Senate is going to vote. Now, the Republicans in Congress arenâÄôt necessarily to blame here. TheyâÄôre playing politics: for all we know, the McCain amendment existed only so that future GOP candidates could complain about Democrats voting for higher taxes (through a certain skewed lens, voting down an irresponsible tax cut is a bad thing). But the Democrats, including Obama, have done an awful job of fighting back. TheyâÄôve been regularly put on the defensive, and itâÄôs damaging the country. It seems pretty likely that weâÄôre going to need to jumpstart the economy. We lost another half-million jobs in January and thereâÄôs no end in sight. And itâÄôs clear that Republicans would prefer to see the Obama administration fail âÄî that would make the next few elections cycles quite a bit easier. With that in mind, the Democrats need to quit worrying about what their opposition thinks and pay more attention to crafting the best possible policy. How this stimulus debate goes down is going to set the tone for the next few years. If the Democrats allow themselves to get steamrolled on this fight, things are going to be ugly when the real throwdowns start. On most of the other contentious issues, the two parties are even further apart than they are about the stimulus package. On the economy, most politicians involved will at least say publicly that âÄúsomethingâÄù has to be done, even if they disagree wildly on what that âÄúsomethingâÄù is. But think, for example, about the looming health care fight. On an issue like that, the two parties are diametrically opposed: one favors some kind of a universal system, one does not. ThatâÄôs going to be a seriously ugly discussion, and if the Obama White House hasnâÄôt asserted itself already, theyâÄôll lose on health care. WeâÄôll be seeing debates over labor laws, Supreme Court justices âÄî who knows what else? Each and every one of them is going to take the willingness to hammer something through without worrying about piling up Republican support. And so, it seems that Obama has already reached a crossroad. HeâÄôs going to have to decide what matters more: the ends, or the means. Because, while it might seem politically advantageous to be known as a bipartisan uniter, itâÄôs even better to go down in history as someone who passed policy that worked. Sure, in a perfect world one could have both âÄî but in this world, we have the GOP. All right, maybe that was a wee bit harsh. But the point stands: bipartisanship is a myth. Our lives will not be improved if Obama takes Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, out to brunch, but will be bettered by effective policy. And while some may have supported this president because of his supposed ability to transform our politics, weâÄôre going to have to admit that itâÄôs not a reasonable goal. He might have to break a few eggs (or heads), but at least heâÄôll manage to accomplish âĦ well, anything at all. It would be a sight better than the alternative. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]