Alex Massie

Washington’s Unhealthy Fetish for Bipartisanship

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So health care has its 60 votes and, since there are, depending upon how one classifies Joe Lieberman, 60 Democrats in the United States Senate all those votes are Democratic votes. No Republican crossed the aisle. At this point you might be forgiven that this is how politics is supposed to work: the side with the majority wins. But that reckons without the amusing wisdom of the Washington "centrist" establishment that measures a bill's worth not on its merits but by the extent to which it may be considered "bi-partisan". Thus David Gergen, with David Broder the keeper of the faux-moderate flame, whines:

"In my judgment it's a tragedy for the country to have a bill this important, a historic piece of legislation, pass with only one party voting for it."

Oh noes! Gergen who, as the cable networks always remind us, first served in the Methuselah administration, demonstrates one of the ways in which politics in Washington, often scorned for its cynicism, is actually also hopeless naive and even infantile. It is the view that while the House represents the people's vulgar desires, the Senate is filled with upstanding gentlemen (and the occasional gentle lady) whose wisdom is such that Pericles himself might be intimidated were he to share a chamber with such titans as Ben Nelson, Arlen Specter and David Vitter. As any sensible person could tell you this is awful tommyrot.

The charitable interpretation is that this is another manifestation of exceptional American idealism. But actually, it's the elevation of a perceived ideal form of politics that bears no relation whatsoever to the reality of politics as it is, and should be, conducted. Bi-partisanship, in this sense, is a mighty con designed to offer each party legislative cover. Don't blame us, the other guys voted for it too! Dividing lines in politics are useful for without them what is there to help voters choose the lesser of two evils come election-time?

Consequently, the Republican party's unanimous opposition - thus far - to the health care bill is actually a healthy development, not a descent into vulgar tribalism. Perhaps the GOP interpretation of the bill is correct (it may be) and, certainly, they might have helped build a bill less poisonous to their preferences had they participated in the process. But I see no reason to mourn their failure to do so. Alea iacta est and let the voters decide.

There may well be occasions in which a degree of bipartisan comity is useful but it's hard to see why tinkering with health insurance is one of them. For that matter, as Steve Benen says, Gergenism demands that if you have a majority you shouldn't be allowed to use it.

Gergenism, however, sees Washington as the vital glue without which the United States would fall apart. Thus anything that attracts bi-partisan support is good and anything that might be termed divisive is bad. (It doesn't matter much which party is in power). The merits of any actual decision - the Iraq War for instance - are less important than attracting cross-party support. Needless to say a bill with bi-partisan support is just as likely to be a terrible bill as one without it.

Here, one might observe, that Sarah Palin's admirers have a point: her sin, in terms of the Gergen-Broder axis - is not that she's ignorant (the District is amply stocked with politicians who shouldn't be trusted to run a raffle) but that she divides people and does so clearly and, I suppose, honestly. The objection, in other words, is to the style of her politics not its substance.

This is absurd but it explains why a Joe Lieberman  - as self-interested and conniving and duplicitous as the best of 'em - is able to present himself as some kind of sage while, to take a recent example, Rick Santorum was quite the wrong kind of person for the United States Senate.

Politics isn't an especially noble business and one of the more infantile Washington delusions is to pretend to believe that it is. If such muddle-thinking didn't have consequences then it wouldn't matter much but it does since it elevates politics to a status it doesn't merit and demands that no-one be permitted to see the game for what it really is.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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