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Means of Consent

The New Republic has obtained President Bush's inaugural address, and it reveals the new president's determination to end Washington's adversarial culture and restore comity between Democrats and Republicans. "A new breeze is blowing, and the old bipartisanship must be made new again," Bush declares. "The American people await action. They didn't send us here to bicker."

That inaugural address was actually delivered by President George Bush in 1989 (and obtained via an electronic database). But the theme will undoubtedly reappear in his son's speech. George W. Bush made bipartisanship a campaign mantra, and it was the centerpiece of his December victory speech—which he delivered (after an introduction from Democratic Speaker Pete Laney) from the Texas House of Representatives, where, he noted, "Republicans and Democrats have worked together."

In so doing. Bush has embraced one of Washington's most cherished myths. In the political culture of the capital, bipartisanship serves as a proxy for other qualities—moderation, civility, and compromise—widely associated with public virtue. The sentiment has existed for a long time, but the closeness and ugliness of this presidential election have given it new urgency. In recent weeks, the punditry has reverberated with calls for bipartisanship, and politicians in both parties have dutifully vowed to comply. "We want to create a tone," a Bush adviser recently proclaimed, "that will dissuade both sides from continuing the warfare." Which is all well and good—except that when the two parties speak of bipartisanship, they mean entirely different things. What's more, both versions are meaningless.

The Democrats in Congress define bipartisanship as passing legislation that enjoys widespread support in both parties. "Having a Republican steamroller and picking up a handful of conservative Democrats is not bipartisanship," said Democrat Charles Rangel. "What is bipartisanship is bringing in the leadership of the Democrats and Republicans and trying to find an agenda that both parties can agree to, so that we have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats supporting it." And the Democrats already have such an agenda in mind: their own. "If we work in a bipartisan way," promised House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, "we can get all that list done—campaign reform, education, prescription medicine, patients' bill of rights."

But, of course, these ideas—with the possible exception of education—don't have serious Republican support at all. Most Republicans oppose campaign finance reform. It's true that many, over the last year or two, have mimicked Democratic rhetoric on HMOs and prescription drugs. But most have done so for political cover, backing ineffectual alternatives and resisting genuine reform. The GOP's main proposal on prescription drugs in last year's Congress involved subsidizing insurance companies to offer private coverage—an idea that independent analysts, as well as many of the companies themselves, rejected as unworkable. Republican proposals on HMO reform were filled with loopholes that restricted the number of patients affected and their right to sue their insurers.

The only way to pass genuine campaign finance and health care reform would be for Democrats to pick off a few like-minded Republicans. But, by the Democrats' own definition, that would not constitute real bipartisanship. The reality is that if Congress takes up the issues that dominated this year's campaign and restricts itself to legislation that enjoys the support of the bulk of both parties, then almost nothing of importance will be accomplished. Far from overcoming gridlock, the Democrats' idea of bipartisanship would practically guarantee it.

BUSH'S DEFINITION OF bipartisanship is more modest: passing legislation with the support of most Republicans and any Democrats. So far, Bush has pursued this goal by meeting with moderate and conservative Democrats and largely ignoring their leadership in Congress. As governor of Texas, he did the same thing—wooing ideologically compatible Democrats, of whom there were many in Texas, and stiffing everybody else. (The audience at his speech in the Texas House contained only those members of the opposing party who had allied themselves with Bush; other Democrats were not welcome.)

The brand of bipartisanship Bush has followed to date, in other words, requires no ideological compromise whatsoever. The "bipartisanship" derives from the fact that the two parties do not align themselves along a perfect left-right axis. For most of the past century, party labels corresponded less closely to ideology than they do today. Some Southern Democrats ranked among the most conservative members of Congress, and some Northern Republicans ranked among the most liberal. In recent decades, the Democratic Party has consolidated its hold on Northern progressives, and the GOP has consolidated its hold on Southern conservatives. (Which is why Congress has grown more partisan: Party identification has more ideological significance.) But the realignment is still not complete, leaving a residue of Democratic conservatives, like Louisiana Senator John Breaux, and Northeastern Republican liberals, like Vermont Senator James Jeffords, who, had they been born a generation later, would likely have wound up in the other party. This year's American Conservative Union rating for Jeffords, 36 percent, is in the general range of white Southern Democrats and well below that of representatives such as Mississippi's Gene Taylor (56 percent) or Texas's Charlie Stenholm (52 percent).

So, if you were to line up every member of Congress from left to right on each issue, the halfway point would find a smattering of Democrats on the right and a smattering of Republicans on the left. It would be arithmetically impossible for Bush to cobble together majorities without winning over any Democrats. Bipartisanship, by Bush's definition, could simply mean gathering together the most conservative 51 percent of Congress on each issue.

Strangely, though, Bush's talk of bipartisanship has been widely interpreted as a rebuke to his party's conservative wing (usually embodied by bombastic House Majority Whip Tom DeLay). Here is a quotation from Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer: "The governor's focus is going to be on implementing the compassionate-conservative agenda he ran on. He's hoping to create coalitions to pass that agenda. He believes the key to governing is bipartisanship." And here is a quote from DeLay: "We'll act exactly the same way we have been. We'll write conservative bills and ask the Democrats to participate." A Washington Post story portrayed these two remarks as emblematic of the "contrast" between the two men's approaches to bipartisanship. But, if you look past Fleischer's velvety spin, both men are saying basically the same thing: They want to pick off enough Democrats to pass as much of Bush's agenda as possible. Indeed, DeLay has in recent weeks held private meetings of his own with conservative Democrats.

DON'T THE TWO parties know that their paeans to bipartisanship are incoherent and self-serving? Probably. But two key segments of the population demand them. Independent voters, unmoored from partisan affiliation, respond approvingly to politicians who disdain interparty bickering. A widespread populist strain—best embodied in Ross Perot's 1992 campaign—holds that there are objective, nonideological solutions to the nation's problems, and the only barrier to these is the two parties' inability to cooperate.

Oddly enough, this populist critique almost perfectly matches that of the Washington establishment, which regards bipartisanship as a lost Eden to be longed for and lamented. The official view was neatly encapsulated in a recent New York Times op-ed co-authored by Howard Baker, John Danforth, Sam Nunn, and Robert Strauss, four consummate representatives of respectable centrist opinion. After the obligatory odes to the sagacity of the Founding Fathers and calls for healing, the four wise men explain why the election results constitute a ringing public demand for bipartisanship. "An electorate that split down the middle on the presidency, on the House, and on the Senate was obviously sending a message to those who would govern America," they write. "What the American people are looking for is not confrontation but rather consensus, not militancy but moderation." And what is this consensus that Congress should pass? "The agenda should not be the platform of Philadelphia or the platform of Los Angeles," they assert. "It should be the politics of moderation that the American people, in their wisdom, endorsed on November 7."

Here we find several peculiar, but popular, assumptions. The first is that a close election represents a conscious endorsement of bipartisanship. The fact that nobody actually voted for a presidential candidate located symmetrically between the two parties does not trouble the advocates of this view. The implication is that the voters cluster in the political center and, when forced to select between two equally noxious extremes, split in two in order to prevent either party from gaining a mandate.

One problem with this theory is that voters don't act en masse. The election's close outcome stemmed not from a collective choice to divide down the middle but from a collection of individual choices to support one party's candidate or the other's. Moreover, there is no reason to think most voters reside in the ideological terrain between Bush and Al Gore. Quite the opposite: Both candidates enjoyed the unshakable allegiance of roughly 40 percent of the population and moved as close to the center as their bases would permit in order to win the smaller number who remained. In all likelihood, more voters lay to the extremes of the two candidates than between them.

Nor does the fact that each party's candidate received aroughly equal number of votes mean the public supported their platforms equally. Opinion polls consistently showed higher support for Gore's positions than for Bush's. Bush roughly matched Gore's vote total by convincing swing voters that he shared Gore's views on key issues like prescription-drug coverage and HMO reform. Gore's ideological advantage, meanwhile, was offset by his limited skills on the stump and the cultural backlash against President Clinton's personal behavior.

Then there is the assumption that bipartisanship equals "progress," which is inherently superior to "gridlock." "Both parties," observe the Times' op-ed sages, "have been given a mandate to work together, to come together, to work to find those areas of national agreement that do not divide Americans, but rather unite them." Naturally, such a premise appeals to elected officials, who win the favor of their constituents through obvious legislative achievements. But it does not necessarily advance the public good. Sometimes, to be sure, bipartisanship means that both parties join together to provide cover for necessary but unpopular decisions—such as the 1990 agreement to reduce the budget deficit. But, bipartisanship just as often provides cover for mutual irresponsibility.

Consider what happened the last time talk of bipartisanship filled the corridors of power. Four years ago, even though the results of the election were quite different, the predominant interpretation was the same as it is now. "The American people returned to office a president of one party and a Congress of another," said President Clinton in his second inaugural address. "Surely, they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore." And so Clinton began his second term determined to reach an agreement with congressional Republicans. The result was the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, an archetype of back-scratching politics in which both sides took credit for a result (the disappearance of the deficit) that would have occurred anyway. The bill's cost-saving measures, such as its unworkable budget caps, have mostly been ignored, while the deal added tens of billions of dollars in new spending and tax breaks.

This year, the large budget surplus tempts the parties to join together in an even greater spending and tax-cutting binge, the bill for which would come due in a decade or so. Alternatively, if the parties cannot reach a grand agreement, the money will automatically be used to pay down the national debt-a much more productive allocation of the surplus. So if the retirement of the baby-boomers finds us drowning in debt, it will likely be the result of too much bipartisanship, not too little.

Just as legislation passed with bipartisan support is seen as morally commendable regardless of its content, politicians who frequently cross party lines are deemed similarly virtuous regardless of their reasons for doing so. Reporters invariably describe moderates as "independent" or "maverick," as if their only motivation were an innate resistance to partisan groupthink. "Sadly, partisanship rides so high these days that anyone daring to cross party lines can expect to be roughed up," wrote the politically ambidextrous commentator David Gergen, "as I found in my own case." You would think Gergen was a social and political leper rather than a prestigious, highly paid member of the Washington elite. According to the ethic of bipartisanship, politicians are tugged between the polar forces of their own self-interest, which means upholding party loyalty, and the public good, which means the opposite.

To be sure, abandoning party discipline has costs. But it also has benefits. Moderation is a way for members from swing districts to avoid controversy with their constituents. Congressmen willing to be more pro-business than their party leaders (Democrats, usually) are richly rewarded by campaign donors. Senator Joe Lieberman's bipartisanship is a function not only of his temperament and moralism but also of his alliance with Connecticut's insurance, gun, and submarine industries, which urge him to take positions more favorable to business and the military than those of most of his Democratic colleagues. If Representative Connie Morella, a Republican in a liberal Maryland district, didn't frequently challenge the GOP leadership, she'd be out of a job. Conversely, often the toughest thing for a congressman to do is to buck his own constituents and back his party's leadership. In 1994, many Democrats lost seats for supporting President Clinton's tax increase. James Rogan, a conservative Republican in a moderate district, voted with his party for impeachment in 1999, contributing to his defeat the next year. In all these instances, "bipartisanship" was the easy path, the path that helped politicians further their careers, but not the path of genuine conviction.

None of this is to say that bipartisanship is necessarily evil. It has produced valuable achievements and could do so once again. The point is that bipartisanship is not necessarily good, either. It has no inherent meaning one way or the other; the presence or absence of cooperation between parties tells us nothing about whether government is acting in the public interest. Bipartisanship is a political tactic, not a moral principle. Too bad Washington can't tell the difference.

This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.