Now that Senate Republicans have derailed President Obama’s popular campaign finance reform bill, it’s time we admitted a sad truth: bipartisanship is a noble idea in theory, but it fails in practice.
The doomed reform package is just the latest example of that failure, as intransigent Republicans filibuster every bill they consider not bipartisan enough. Defenders of bipartisanship, such as the president, claim it’s necessary for “getting things done.” Yet instead of efficiency we have gridlock.
In truth, Obama’s willingness to let Republicans constantly filibuster doesn’t lead to balanced government. Instead, it gives the political opposition more power than the Founding Fathers designed it to have, while working against true compromise. That’s bad not just for Democrats, but for American democracy as a whole.
Obama’s conciliatory impulses, mind you, are good ones. When James Madison prepared a plan for the Constitution in 1787, he in effect took the position Obama holds today: that excessive partisanship was a serious problem for any republic. In fact, the reigning authority on republics, Baron Charles de Montesquieu, had argued that representative government worked only in small countries whose people could achieve consensus on important issues. In such a sprawling nation as the Thirteen Colonies, Montesquieu insisted, factionalism and self-interest would destroy any democratic system.
To prove Montesquieu wrong, Madison designed a government that harnessed factionalism to a system of checks and balances. That humans pursue their own selfish interests wasn’t a problem, he thought, so long as someone else was there to check them by pursuing his or her own opposing interest. In a big country, the many people and interest groups wanting a say in government would balance one another out — so long as each group was equally selfish. “Ambition,” he wrote, “must be made to counteract ambition.”
Madison understood the first rule of bargaining: anyone going into a negotiation asking for half of what he wants is going to end up with a lot less. Instead, people should go in asking for the impossible, but remain willing to bargain down to the possible. Madison’s genius was to make this commonsense principle work to the government’s advantage. Fight as hard as you want, he told U.S. politicians; you’ll be performing a service by checking the other guy who’s fighting just as hard. The battle itself will produce compromise.
Today’s Republican leaders have learned the right lessons from Madison. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, despite his bipartisan rhetoric, has mastered the use of the filibuster to stop Democratic legislation, such as the campaign finance reform bill, that has majority support in the Senate. This isn’t a bad thing; McConnell is being exactly as partisan and self-serving as Madison expected him to be, while staying well within constitutional limits.
Throughout U.S. history, the government has functioned best when its leaders have acted like McConnell — when two strong parties have fought hard for their preferred policies. From 1876 to 1896, the Democratic and Republican parties traded power in hotly contested elections, while the economy mostly prospered.
Similarly, during the 1980s, a strong Republican president, Ronald Reagan, faced off against an equally strong Democratic Congress — resulting in a moderate government that produced incremental change. Only when politicians violated the rule of law — as did Southern Democrats did when they seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861 or as President Nixon did during Watergate — did their partisanship imperil the government.
Obama and other advocates of bipartisanship see things differently. They seek a return to the politics of the 1950s and early 1960s, when two moderate presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, combined with a moderate Congress to produce a remarkable — and unusual — consensus.
Only once before, during the “Era of Good Feelings” under President Monroe (1817 to 1825), did political agreement rule the day. Too much consensus, however, isn’t necessarily a good thing. In both cases, eras of good feelings hid important divisions in society that soon bubbled to the surface, leading to periods of divisive partisanship in the contentious Jackson Era and the strife-torn 1960s.
Obama’s desire for compromise on the filibuster is understandable but misguided. The president needn’t worry that trying to limit McConnell’s use of the filibuster would display too much partisanship; U.S. politics is designed to compensate for that problem. Instead, the danger is that McConnell’s partisan tactics, admirable in a well-balanced system, have become tyrannical because Democrats aren’t doing enough to check them.
Bipartisanship isn’t something leaders should go looking for. Instead, it’s something that happens naturally after they’ve finished advocating their own political agendas. Ironically, by capitulating too easily to Republicans, Obama is hurting his chances to achieve more balanced solutions to the nation’s problems. That’s hardly what James Madison would have wanted.