Tuesday, August 04, 2009

What is bipartisanship? Is Obama partisan?

On CNN’s “State of the Union” this past Sunday, John McCain said that Barack Obama has failed to be bipartisan:
King asked McCain if Obama has “failed the test he laid out at [an inaugural] dinner, to be truly bipartisan.”

“I'm afraid they have,” McCain replied. “And, look, they've got the votes. We understand that. They had the votes in the stimulus package, in the budget, in the omnibus, in the SCHIP, all this legislation. And they have picked off, sometimes, two or three Republicans.

"But that's not changing the climate in Washington. What that is, is exercising a significant majority. And so I respect their successes, but please don't call it changing the climate in Washington.”

This leads me to ask: What is partisanship? What is bipartisanship?

According to dictionary.com, “partisan” as a noun is “an adherent or supporter of a person, group, party, or cause, esp. a person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance.” “Partisan” as an adjective is “of, pertaining to, or characteristic of partisans; partial to a specific party, person, etc.: partisan politics.” “Bipartisan” is an adjective “representing, characterized by, or including members from two parties or factions.”

I would argue that by this definition, much of the current President’s behavior and much of his legislation has been bipartisan, despite what Congressional Republican leaders might say. The classic example of this is the stimulus, which McCain cited. Not a single House Republican and only three Republican Senators (one of whom is now a Democrat) voted for the bill. Does this mean it is a partisan bill? I don’t think so. The administration tried very hard to include Republican voices, inviting many over to the White House for detailed discussions. The President even visited each Congressional Republican caucus, something I can’t recall his predecessor ever doing for the Democrats. In the end, Republican leadership whipped their caucus hard to make sure they stood in lock-step against the measure. Leader John Boehner and Whip Eric Cantor didn’t care what was actually in the bill; they just knew it was Barack Obama’s bill and they wanted their party to oppose it. Can the President really be accused of being “partial to a specific party” or showing “biased, emotional allegiance” after all that outreach? Can he really be held accountable for the results of the tactics of Boehner and Cantor?

This is why the current Republican Congressional caucuses have earned the label “the party of no.” No matter what the President does, their leadership will oppose it. Under these conditions, I don’t think you can criticize Obama for not being bipartisan enough. You can only hold out an un-shook hand for so long before your muscles get tired and you have to pull back. To find out if a politician is bipartisan, you can’t look at the results, but at the behavior that produced those results. Obama has tried very hard to work with Republicans, but by and large they have refused to work with him – especially in the House. Maybe you think that’s just how the House Republicans should be behaving, and I won’t argue with you right now – just don’t call Obama “partisan” for it.

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