Bipartisan Zombies

by digby

It was inevitable. I wrote about it right after the 2006 election --- as soon as the Republicans lost power, I knew the gasbags would insist that it's time to let bygones be bygones and meet the Republicans halfway in the spirit of a new beginning. GOP politicians have driven the debt sky-high and altered the government so as to be nearly unrecognizable, so logically the Democrats need to extend the hand of conciliation and move to meet them in the middle --- the middle now being so far right, it isn't even fully visible anymore.

Today we have none other than the centrist drivel king, David Broder, reporting that a group of useless meddlers, most of whom who were last seen repeatedly stabbing Bill Clinton in the back, are rising from their crypts to demand that the candidates all promise to appoint a "unity" government and govern from the the center --- or else they will back an independent Bloomberg bid.

Boren said the meeting is being announced in advance of Thursday's Iowa caucuses "because we don't want anyone to think this was a response to any particular candidate or candidates." He said the nation needs a "government of national unity" to overcome its partisan divisions in a time of national challenge he likened to that faced by Great Britain during World War II.

"Electing a president based solely on the platform or promises of one party is not adequate for this time," Boren said. "Until you end the polarization and have bipartisanship, nothing else matters, because one party simply will block the other from acting."

Except the one party is called the Republican Party. When was the last time the Democrats blocked anything?

Isn't it funny that these people were nowhere to be found when George W. Bush seized office under the most dubious terms in history, having been appointed by a partisan supreme court majority and losing the popular vote? If there was ever a time for a bunch of dried up, irrelevant windbags to demand a bipartisan government you'd think it would have been then, wouldn't you? (How about after 9/11, when Republicans were running ads saying Dems were in cahoots with Saddam and bin Laden?) But it isn't all that surprising. They always assert themselves when the Democrats become a majority; it's their duty to save the country from the DFH's who are far more dangerous than Dick Cheney could ever be.

And here's that bucket of lukewarm water, Evan Thomas, insisting that Real Americans --- as opposed to the hysterics who are actively engaged in politics --- are tuning out, even though there's ample evidence that the opposite is actually true. He even evokes that moth-eaten old trope about Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan being best buddies over scotch and waters at night after battling all day over legislation. (If Sam Nunn and David Boren will promise to force the congress to outlaw ever telling that story again, I'll vote for the Bloomity 08 ticket myself.)

The idea among these Village elders is that only through bipartisan cooperation can we "get anything done." Well, if bipartisanship is defined like this, I suppose they are right:

As Congress stumbles toward Christmas, President Bush is scoring victory after victory over his Democratic adversaries. He:

• Beat back domestic spending increases.

• Thwarted an expansion of children's health coverage.

• Defeated tax increases.

• Won Iraq war funding.

• Pushed Democrats toward shattering their pledge not to add to the federal deficit with new tax cuts or rises in mandatory spending.


"The Democrats are learning this isn't the early 1970s, when the Republican Party was Gerald Ford and 140 of his friends," said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "There are 201 of us, and we will be heard."

Recall that the president's approval rating hovers at 30% and the rating of the is GOP minority in congress far lower. It appears to me that they know very well how to "get things done" not only on a purely partisan basis but with more than 70% of the country disapproving of their actions. They don't need no stinkin' bipartisanship.

To be sure, that story includes old GOP deficit hawk Chuck Grassley howling in the wilderness, but the point cannot be missed that when the GOP was in power they spent like drunken sailors and now that the Democrats have the congress the elders are suddenly up in arms about spending. That will, of course, become the new mantra if a Democrat becomes president and the political establishment decides that the government must "get something done" on reducing the deficit and enlarging the military and lowering taxes and fixing social security and ensuring that Americans don't lose their excellent health care "choices" and keeping foreigners in their place.

I guess everyone is going to have to pardon us cynics here on the liberal side of the dial for being just a teensy bit skeptical of this demand for bipartisanship. The last time the country elected a centrist conciliator who wanted to leave behind the "braindead politics of the past", he first got kicked in the teeth by fellow centrists Sam Nunn and David Boren over gays in the military and raising taxes on the rich, and then faced an opposition so vicious that it ended with an illegitimate impeachment and a stolen election. A lot more has happened since then, all of it bad.

That is not to say it will play out the same way again. Things rarely do. But it's depressing that so many Democrats still seem to have this deep conceit that the Republicans are really reasonable people in spite of fifteen long years of being shown otherwise over and over again. And it's infuriating that after everything that's happened, the permanent political establishment is still more freaked out at the prospect of the dirty hippies passing universal health care than radical neocons starting World War III. If only the reasonable people could get together over scotch and waters and talk it all through everything would work as it's supposed to.

It's a lovely idea, isn't it? The only problem is that they keep forgetting to tell the Republicans, who view politics as a blood sport. They aren't interested in compromise and haven't been since old Bob Michel shuffled off to shuffleboard-land. They play for keeps, which it seems to me, is perfectly obvious after all we've seen over the past 15 years or so. They don't let little things like electoral defeats keep them down. They always work it, no matter what, and in the process they twist the Democratic Party into pretzels.

The bipartisan busybodies just don't notice (or care) that as a movement which doesn't believe in government, the conservatives are just as successful in the minority, obstructing any progressive advance the Democrats want to make. They feel no need to "get things done." Aside from starting wars, building an ever larger police state apparatus and pillaging the treasury on behalf of themselves and their rich friends when they're in power, they don't believe government should "get things done." So, what do Republicans have to gain by cooperating with Democrats?

I suspect that despite all evidence to the contrary many Democrats believe that the conservative movement is dying, if not dead, and that they will have no choice but to meet Democrats across the table and deal with them reasonably. But if that were true we would not see their many wingnut welfare demagogues ramping up a racist immigration campaign like we haven't seen since the days of George Wallace. They look pretty determined to keep fighting to me. Yes, they are in disarray because they can't find a single presidential candidate who perfectly embodies their philosophy of Wealth, God and Guns. (Or perhaps, more appropriately, they can't find a candidate their base is willing to pretend have all those attributes, even though they don't.) But that has little to do with the conservative movement as a whole, which functions just as well with a minority as majority.

The truth is that they know the Republicans are very, very likely going to lose the presidency anyway. And they are fine with it. It brings them together. Here's old hand Richard Viguerie making his pitch for GOP to lose in 2006:

[Sometimes a loss for the Republican Party is a gain for conservatives. Often, a little taste of liberal Democrats in power is enough to remind the voters what they don’t like about liberal Democrats and to focus the minds of Republicans on the principles that really matter. That’s why the conservative movement has grown fastest during those periods when things seemed darkest, such as during the Carter administration and the first two years of the Clinton White House.

Conservatives are, by nature, insurgents, and it’s hard to maintain an insurgency when your friends, or people you thought were your friends, are in power.

They use their time out of power to grow their movement and one of the main ways they do this is by obstructing anything positive the Democrats want to do. They are organized around the principle of being insurgents --- outsiders --- victims. It is not in their interest to cooperate with Democrats.

Maybe Broder and Evan Thomas and the rest of the bipartisan brigade think that all of that is in the past and we can begin a new era of good feeling with the red and the blue bleeding into a lovely shade of mauve. But from where I sit, even with the best of intentions, the onus is on the Republicans to prove that after more than two decades of non-stop razing of decent political discourse and partisanship so fierce they are willing to take down the government if necessary, they are finally willing to work with Democrats to "get things done."

I don't think they're there yet, do you?

Paul Krugman made a similar argument the other day much more concisely, by simply pointing out that it's not Bushism that's the problem --- it's the conservative movement. From a strategic standpoint it's just not enough to wish and hope that the conservative movement is going to see the errors of their ways. They are true believers and they are very politically adept at everything but actual governance --- assuming you think governance equals serving the people, which they don't. It is necessary for progressives to fight them and win, especially since Bush's massive unpopularity has given us the first opening in years to make a case for progressive politics.

Matt Yglesias writes here about how polarization is actually good for the system. I think he's right. This is a bit country, naturally divided by culture, region and ideology. And that's ok. We all still identify as Americans and pull together when the chips are down. But we have always had substantial disagreements among us. There have been a few periods of calm, but for the most part we've been fighting this out from the beginning. It's only in the last few years that we've seen liberals run away from the battle and pretend that the goal is political comity rather than political progress. Not that I entirely blame them. The well-financed conservative movement has been awesome in its political effectiveness. And, like clockwork, the bipartisan zombies inevitably emerge at any moment of conservative weakness to ensure that the hippies aren't given even a moment's breathing room to accomplish something that might benefit someone other than rich people and corporations. (We wouldn't want them to do anything radical, like allowing a rogue vice president to redefine the constitution or enshrining torture as an American value. Good thing the grown-ups woke up from their naps before something really bad happened.)

I dearly hope the Democrats, both politicians and voters, tune out this crap. If Bloomberg wants to run, let him. They need to run their own game and not let these high priests of irrelevancy influence this race. They don't have to make every last person in the country agree with them --- indeed, it's impossible. You can't be all things to all people. And they certainly don't have to please these villagers who are apparently convinced that the worst thing that could possible happen at a time like this would be Democratic rule. They just need to win and then govern as progressives. It is possible to make improvements, sometimes even real, substantial change. But it doesn't come easy, as Krugman reminds us here:

...any attempt to change America's direction, to implement a real progressive agenda, will necessarily be highly polarizing. Proposals for universal health care, in particular, are sure to face a firestorm of partisan opposition. And fundamental change can't be accomplished by a politician who shuns partisanship.

I like to remind people who long for bipartisanship that FDR's drive to create Social Security was as divisive as Bush's attempt to dismantle it. And we got Social Security because FDR wasn't afraid of division. In his great Madison Square Garden speech, he declared of the forces of "organized money": "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred."

I'm sorry it's unpleasant for some people to contemplate the idea of a progressive government. But if it's comity they want, it's in the hands of the "insurgents" who refuse to behave like decent human beings, whether in power or out. It's not in the country's best interest to continue to enable them.

And anyway, the partisan divide is where the big battles in American politics are waged. It's where they've always been waged. The only time the political establishment even notices it these days is when the Republicans are on the run and they get nervous. Democrats should ignore them and take their case directly to the country.

Lambert at corrente wire has an important and comprehensive post along similar lines.

An excerpt:

The “food fight,” obviously a partisan food fight, is purest Equivalation. The Democrats didn’t break the world record for filibusters when they were in the minority; but the Republicans just did. And when the press covered the (very few) Democratic filibusters, they called them “filibusters.” And when the press covers the (never-ending) Republican filibusters, the word “filibuster” gets magically transmuted into the “60 votes needed to pass.” And last I checked, Democrats were allowing anybody to come to their election rallies, but Bush was screening his to make sure only Republicans attended. This is the Conservative Movement in action. Sure, there’s a “food fight,” but most of the food that’s in the air is coming from one side of the cafeteria!

This all reminds me of the period before the Iraq war when everyone was trying to figure out some way to explain what they were seeing before their very eyes in light of what everyone was telling them. We aren't crazy. This stuff really is happening.

We can wish for conciliation all we want, but unless the Democrats can do it without any cooperation from the Republicans, it will be just another game of Charlie Brown and the football. David Broder is fine with that. He's more afraid of hippies trashing the white house than of fascists* trashing the country, so he's happy to help Lucy hold the ball. Democratic voters must be clear eyed and willing to fight because if we don't, they will win again, even if they lose. I don't think the country can take it.

*Now that Jonah Goldberg has made the word acceptable for use against liberals, it's back in circulation as far as I'm concerned and I'm using it.