Ladies and Gentlemen, This is Politics

Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire withdrew his nomination as President Obama’s Secretary of Commerce.  The new president’s first month in office has been quite bumpy, with the Commerce Secretary’s job increasingly turning into a cursed cabinet post. As rough as it has been for the president, I am still withholding judgment on the Obama administration.  As Mike Tomlin, head coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers noted to Sports Illustrated even before his Super Bowl victory, transitions are miserable but “with that misery can come great gain if you embrace the change.”

It is far too premature to rate whether Obama’s presidency will produce great gain. I am, though, in a position to judge Obama’s pledge to change Washington, or rather, change politics as usual.  This was the rallying cry of his campaign.  This was the one substantive promise, if it can be called that, for which people threw their support behind the president.  His rhetoric of Hope was grounded in Change, and it was a Change in the way we conducted politics. I long ago predicted that this effort would fail, not because of Obama’s shortcomings, but because politics is politics.  The almost unanimous Republican opposition to the stimulus package and Judd Gregg’s withdrawal over “irresolvable conflicts” citing “a different set of views on many critical items of policy” illustrate why everyone longs for bipartisanship without knowing what it looks like or even if it’s wanted.  After I started writing this blog, an Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times written by a political science professor which so succinctly and articulately made the point I wanted to make:  bipartisanship never existed in American history and “kind words and good intentions cannot build a bridge between competing political philosophies.”   The advice to the president, to persuade America to embrace his beliefs,  was also very wise for, as Richard Neustadt said, presidential power is the power to persuade.

Many, including some I personally know, have called Republican tactics “obstructionist” and “partisan,” but the fact is the Democratic and Republican Parties hold fundamentally different values and principles which cannot be bridged with persuasion and compromise.  The division over the stimulus package illustrates the division over the parties’ economic principles.   The Democrats believe the government should be active in directly aiding the people and steering the economy.  The Republicans believe government spending should be controlled and abhors direct government involvement in anything. Critics have characterized Republican adherence to tax cuts–the least intrusive way to infuse the economy with money–as continuation of failed policies of the past eight years.  Whether tax cuts failed is debatable–I can certainly put forth several defenses of the Bush tax cuts–but the Democrat agenda historically hasn’t proved all mighty either.  If you believe, as John McCain and I do, that one cannot in good conscience pass $800 billion of debt to future generations, it’s not obstructionist to vote against the stimulus package.  It’s responsible and principled to do so.

The truth is, as I’ve written before, you really can’t have bipartisanship and principle at the same time for you can’t cooperate on passing a bill that you fundamentally disagree with.  Nor does bipartisanship work in a democratic republic.  Elections are about accountability.  How do the voters hold any politician accountable when everyone has agreed on a bill?

My opposition to the stimus package is not grounded on malicious partisanship.  I have no ax to grind, hold a personal interest in the economy improving, and genuinely wish to help all Americans through this economic downturn.  I quite frankly take great offense by any suggestion that by opposing the stimulus package, I’m being an obstructionist partisan.  The inability to agree to disagree:  in my eyes, that’s really what’s precluding political civility, which is what I view as true bipartisanship.


8 Responses to “Ladies and Gentlemen, This is Politics”

  1. 1 Chris Schroeck February 18, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Joe, Joe, Joe. I really hope you’re not getting all of your information from Sean Hannity, but I have heard some of these things on his show.

    Where to begin. First, let me point out the problem with this “It’s irresponsible to pass $800 billion in debt to the next generation” business. Frankly, I agree, but this is a ridiculous Republican talking point. The same party that has been funding the Iraq war off the books, and the same people who voted for the FIRST 800 billion – remember McCain voted for TARP – are upset that this time we are irresponsibly spending money and it’s NOT GOING TO THEIR DEFENSE CONTRACTOR AND BANKING BUDDIES. This is not some principled stand. That’s not to say that your reasons aren’t genuine, but I don’t believe theirs are, given that most of them voted for these other huge deficit spending bills.

    Even Reagan, who is apparently the second coming of Jesus to most Republicans, ran huge deficits so he could help his defense contractor friends. So it’s certainly not the case that Republicans oppose government spending, or are generally concerned with passing on debt to future generations.

    The presidents closest to caring about the national debt, not that there have been any who really seemed to care are usually Democrats – check out this nifty graph.

    Now that I have finished my partisan budget rant, about the main point of your post:

    I think bipartisanship is kind of made up. There are bills that are very partisan, bills that are kind of horse-traded and have elements that are partisan on each side, and some bills that defy traditional categories and haven’t been grabbed by a party – for instance, Bush’s immigration bill.

    I’m not so sure about this bill. There are things that I like about it, and things that I don’t. But I can say that Obama’s handling of it has impressed me. In the end, this entire process was about posturing. Everyone knew, the entire time, that Obama was basically going to get what he wanted. Now that he has “reached out”, and Republicans voted against the bill, when the economy inevitably improves Dems are going to have a great election issue. And it will improve, whether because of this bill or not. Every economist I have read says things will begin to turn around in late 2009, which is why I am so puzzled as to why more Republicans didn’t just jump on board for political reasons.

  2. 2 Chris Schroeck February 22, 2009 at 8:51 am

    heh yeah after I posted my comment I was like “this is no fun”.

  3. 3 joesas February 22, 2009 at 3:44 pm


    I think your graph is just scary. I always suspected this to be true, but W’s reckless spending is truly historically unprecedented. Good god. That graph is going to haunt me for a while…

    For your information, I do not watch Sean Hannity (at all now), so the fact that you know what he’s saying suggests you watch him more than I do, which suggests you watch Fox News, which suggests you are either 1) sadistic, or 2) more conservative than you pretend. LOL.

    While I understand where you’re coming from, I don’t share your cynicism, so I will stick to my original assertion that it’s a matter of principle. In a way, it is true that the second bill is opposed because the money is going to the wrong people. I’d rather not have had to pass the TARP either, but we can’t have banks collapsing while I can live with GM going under. Unsympathetic? Probably. Unfair to the people? Definitely. It’s not right that the philosophy of “if you’re big enough, we’re gonna rescue you” seems to be ruling the day, but it is.

    Putting aside whether we live up to our ideals, which neither party does (or the people, for that matter), don’t you think the parties have separate principles that’s revealed at times like this? I think it’s seen in their rhetoric. Republicans and Democrats just speak differently. Parties don’t often live up to their rhetoric, but rhetoric isn’t meaningless either. We do live in a democratic republic, after all.

    That said, I think I agree with your characterization of bipartisanship. In fact, I think it was very well set forth. Not every issue is divisive, and some issues are always divisive. It’s kind of random which ones are and are not divisive.

    I think I have an answer for why the Republicans didn’t vote for the bill: because they don’t get anything out of it. If they vote for the bill and things go bad, they have nothing to run on. If they vote for the bill and things go well, Democrats get the credit because they’re in power. If things go bad (and there’s always something bad to talk about), Republicans can say, “Look, they were in power and they’re responsible.” Cooperation really doesn’t pay in politics because there’s no vote in cooperation. The party in power gets the blame and credit. No incentive for the opposition to cooperate (unless, say, there’s a war or terrorism, but even there, the air of cooperation doesn’t last long either).

    And yes, writing this blog piece, reading your comment, and writing a response to your comment was not as interesting as the post before and after. And no one (except you) even gives a crap. I’m not doing this for a while.

  4. 4 Chris Schroeck February 24, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Actually, I listen to Hannity quite a bit. And Rush. I disagree with them, but there’s no doubt that they are entertaining. I don’t watch Hannity’s show, but I like hearing what he has to say.

    Today I listened to Glenn Beck for a while, and I was not nearly as entertained.

    It’s strange that a raging liberal such as myself would enjoy conservative talk radio, but “progressive” talk radio is really annoying.

    • 5 joesas February 24, 2009 at 2:21 pm

      LOL Sometimes interesting (and provocative) is more important than persuasive and thoughtful–or right. Just ask Ann Coulter, who is a nutjob.

      When did you turn into a “raging liberal”????

  5. 6 Chris Schroeck February 24, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    I just call myself a raging liberal on your blog, because I am one when compared to you. My politics is actually quite nuanced, and I consider myself a fiscal conservative/social liberal. Like Ron Paul, but not so extreme.

  6. 7 joesas February 28, 2009 at 10:31 am

    My goodness. You make it sound as if I’m out of the mainstream, hard core, GW Bush loving, neo-conservative, teetering on the right edge of the political spectrum nutjob conservative….

    On second thought, never mind…

  1. 1 How Should I Tell NYU to Go Screw Itself? « The World According to Joe Trackback on February 21, 2009 at 2:18 am

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