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By Jay Cost

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The Limits of Bipartisanship

The news reports today are full of stories about the White House going on offense to retake control of the messaging on the stimulus bill, which many believe the President is losing as the bill stalls in the Senate and its poll numbers slip.

I am certainly no expert in economic policy, so I cannot trace the bill's problems to its quality. My impression is that its political troubles really began when the House GOP caucus surprised most everybody by voting unanimously against it. That dealt a blow to the hope that the incoming administration could forge new bipartisan coalitions. Frankly, I was never a believer in that. As the White House gets back on the offense today, hopefully it has learned a valuable lesson: bipartisanship makes for a handy campaign pitch, but as a governing strategy, it has its limits. Partisanship is a real thing, and its causes are not really reducible to moral failings in our politicians, as is often supposed to be the case.

There is something to be said for changing the tone of political discussion. There is often a great deal of nasty or ill-tempered rhetoric that can be toned down. But beyond that, talk of bipartisanship sounds to me like the hazy dreams of casual observers who don't understand how American politics has practically functioned for 200+ years.

For starters, when we think about bipartisanship, we need to remember that virtually all of the Framers were opposed to partisanship when they were drafting the blueprint for the government. But when they actually got down to governing, they became the first partisans! If we want to talk partisan nastiness, we can always look back to the election of 1800, which actually pitted the authors of the Declaration of Independence against one another. If Thomas Jefferson and John Adams couldn't manage a civil discussion of the issues that divide us, what hope do the rest of us have?

Within fifty years of our decidedly anti-partisan founding, we had two robust political parties akin to what we have today. That's a tip off that partisanship is perhaps an inevitable feature of our politics - and political scientists have done good work explaining why politicians find parties and partisanship to be of so much use. I don't want to get into all the details of why parties are helpful for politicians - I'll just make three points that are relevant to the stimulus bill.

First, partisan disagreements are real. That is, they concern different conceptions of the right or the good - and they are generated in good faith. One side is not the defender of all things pure and sacred about America while the other side is dangerously working to undermine them. Instead, partisan disagreements are typically the result of honest differences about issues for which there is no obviously correct answer. These are bound to manifest themselves in politics. The chance that these differences will appear is positively related to the scope of the debate. So, if you're going to name a post office in Altoona - well, that's a small matter and it's unlikely that partisan differences are going to get in your way. But if you're handling something big, like - oh, I don't know - jump starting the American economy, expect partisan differences to make at least a cameo appearance.

Second, bipartisanship can often conflict with the personal goals of politicians. Now, I suspect that some readers are about to boil with rage at the thought of crafty politicos angling for their personal good at the expense of the public interest. And, when we're talking about things like graft, I'm right there with you. But participation in government creates a huge collective action problem. Namely, why should an individual work on behalf of the public good? It's rational to let some other fool do it while you collect all the benefits. One solution we have generated for this is to make holding political office estimable. This creates personal benefits for elected officials to enjoy while they aid the public good. If you're elected to Congress, you are called "Honorable." When you're in the majority, you enjoy more staff, better offices, more say in what happens. If you're plucky, you might someday get to be called "Mister (or Madame) Speaker." And if you're the pluckiest of them all, someday you might get to be the President, the only person in government with a theme song. So, it's good to be in politics. It has to be - if it wasn't, nobody worth a salt would bother getting into it.

Practically speaking, this can create a problem for bipartisanship. If you're in the opposite party of the President - bipartisanship is not necessarily going to help you. Oh sure, it'll help the President, who will enjoy higher job approval numbers and an easy cruise to reelection. But what about you? The higher his numbers, the less likely your side is to pick up seats in the next midterm election. And, should the Chief's numbers go high enough, you might even find yourself at risk of losing your seat, heaven forbid! So, if an opportunity presents itself to knock the POTUS down a peg, you might have an incentive to do it.

The third relevant problem with bipartisanship is that there is a bipartisan solution to most problems - it's just that the public hates it (and President Obama campaigned assiduously against it). That solution is the status quo. If one side vehemently objects to the changes that the other side wants, and vice-versa, the chances are good that they both have the same second choice: no change at all. [See, for instance, George W. Bush's belly flop on Social Security reform in 2005.] So, gridlock is actually bipartisan.

When we consider all this, we might conclude by asking whether the partisan tone is so inexplicable. Maybe it's actually inevitable. People being people, isn't partisan nastiness to be expected sooner or later? And when it comes, how can you get rid of it? In the scenario I've sketched, policy and personal interests yield political disagreements, then deadlock, then public disaffection. It seems inevitable that a vocal minority on both sides will, in frustration, shoot their mouths off, which is typically all it takes for the tone to fall into the gutter.

None of this is to say that the President isn't going to be able to pull in some Republican support on this bill. He might. Regardless, I think believe bipartisanship is of limited use in governing this country. The Presidency is a powerful office, but it isn't powerful enough to overcome partisanship.

-Jay Cost