The cost of “bipartisanship”

Obama’s attempt to engage Republicans has blocked real reform

By Peter Ianakiev

If I could get Barack Obama to denounce any one of the promises he campaigned on, it would be his commitment to bipartisanship. Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing inherently wrong with reaching across the aisle and working with members of both parties to craft legislation. But there is something quixotic about liberals’ striving for it. The reason for this is that, simply put, the Republican Party is frighteningly effective at opposition politics and is far more concerned with political expediency than good policy. Consider this: At the height of Republican domination of Congress, following the 2004 elections, there were 45 Democrats in the Senate. Somehow, Republicans were able to accomplish with 55 (and fewer) what Democrats are unable to with 59: Get things passed.

It’s really quite telling that a situation where Democrats have an 18-seat majority is a positive one for Republicans. The meaning of this is simple: Republicans are fantastic at obstruction. They are adept at blocking Obama’s nominees and making sure that legislation has to have 60 votes before making it to the Senate floor. And the consequences of this approach, while terrible for the country, are a political boon for Republicans. When the 2010 elections come, and little has been done about health care reform, the economy, financial regulation, etc., what are voters going to do? Are they going to stick with a party that has been able to do nothing despite a majority that did not exist in Dick Cheney’s wildest dreams? Can Democrats truly expect people sick of a weak economy and an incompetent government to go out for them in droves? Clearly, Republicans are onto a winning strategy.

We see this with Scott Brown’s victory. It’s completely ridiculous to say it’s a reaction to a leftward shift in our government. Nobody who rationally evaluates modern American politics can possibly conclude that, somehow, Obama has moved things far left. What exactly did he do that is socialistic? Vigorously support single-payer or a public option? No. Instead, he has settled for a compromised, “centrist” health care plan that has left many Democrats and Independents bitterly disappointed.

Scott Brown’s win is best attributed to the feeling that simply not enough has been done to change the status quo. In a political climate full of anger and resentment at a government that has not alleviated the problems of ordinary Americans, is it any surprise that people would vote for the opposition—any opposition, out of sheer frustration? And shouldn’t that tell us that what Democrats have to do is not, as is their typical approach to politics, give up, but actually, for once in far too long, stand up and fight for what they believe? Thousands of Obama voters in 2008 stayed home for the Massachusetts special election. Who can blame them? Can you expect any supporter of the President to be fired up and ready to go after so much difficulty in passing anything?

If Democrats want to win, they have to get something done. Realistically speaking, this means they will have to use reconciliation. Reconciliation is a Senate procedure, reserved for budgetary matters, that allows a party to pass a bill by a simple majority without the need for the 60 votes a filibuster requires. George W. Bush used it three times to pass tax cuts. Any threats on the part of Republicans that using reconciliation now will somehow destroy bipartisanship are entirely empty; the death of bipartisanship is all too clearly exemplified by the Republicans’ goal to turn health care reform into, as Jim DeMint put it, “Obama’s Waterloo,” and not to actually fix a system that even they acknowledge has serious flaws.

It is disastrous, both in terms of policy and politics, for Democrats to water down their legislation and compromise even more. No doubt, some Senate moderates, like Evan Bayh or Ben Nelson will advocate this; but it is imperative for the good of the country and the future of the party that they be ignored. Republicans will not commit themselves to any program of meaningful reform. It’s just far too tempting to block any serious attempts right now and reap in the gains when frustrated voters go to the polls in 2010 and lash out against a party they had such high hopes for only two years ago. At this point, Congressional Republicans just are not interested in working with Democrats. To try to appease them, when the country needs significant reform, is suicidal.

Survey after survey shows a consistently high level of support for the public option that is entirely inconsistent with both the idea that Obama is somehow a Communist or the sheer impossibility of getting it passed in Congress. Most recently, a poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs January 28-31 shows that a solid 49 percent of voters favor a “public entity to directly compete with existing health insurance companies” versus 42 percent who oppose it. A public option is not an unpopular idea. Significant health care reform is not an unpopular idea; nobody thinks a system where health insurance companies can deny you coverage because of pre-existing conditions is close to ideal. Thousands of Obama voters who switched parties in the most recent Massachusetts election want more dramatic reform than anything the Senate is considering at the moment. What Scott Brown’s victory shows, above all, is that this is still a country hungry for change; the sad irony is that it will have precisely the opposite effect. Republicans will only be more emboldened to obstruct and filibuster. Why bother compromising now and working toward a common solution, when it will benefit Democrats and hurt your party’s chances to make dramatic gains in the Senate come November?

Obama has the potential, the talent, and the vision to bring about the change he was elected for and truly accomplish something great: The humanization of a system that for too long has denied care to those who need it. The choice is clear: Obama can be great or he can be a bipartisan moderate. But he can’t be both.

— Peter Ianakiev is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.