Saturday, November 6, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Misunderstanding “Bipartisanship”

Now that Republicans control the House, we're in for a lot more sanctimonious lectures from pundits and partisans about bipartisanship.  I thought I'd rerun this post from Februrary 28 as a preemptive measure.  It's a little dated because it was written when Scott Brown's election to the Senate from Massachusetts made the passage of anything as ambitious as ObamaCare seem like an improbable exercise in hyper-partisanship.  But I think what I said about bipartisanship still holds:

David Brooks is a high-ranking officer in the army of Washington pundits yearning for bipartisanship. Here, he’s trying his best to find something consoling about last Thursday’s Healthcare summit (my emphasis):
“Going in, I was as cynical as everybody else about the Blair House health care forum. I was planning to watch for a half-hour and then write about something else. But the event was more meaningful than that. Most of the credit goes to President Obama. The man really knows how to lead a discussion. He stuck to specifics and tried to rein in people who were flying off into generalities. He picked out the core point in any comment. He tried to keep things going in a coherent direction. . . .

“Philosophically, it is hard to bring these two sides together. And there were times on Thursday when compromise seemed hopeless. But there were other times, when participants started talking nuts and bolts of the exchanges, when there was overlap: how to create interstate insurance markets without a race to the bottom; how to end insurance company power over those with pre-existing conditions.

“Health care reform probably will not get passed this year. But there were moments, at the most wonky and specific, when the two sides echoed each other. Glimmers of hope for the next set of reformers.”
 Let’s try to get a bead on Brooks’s idea of “bipartisanship.” We can all agree that bipartisanship is possible only when there’s a meeting of minds across the partisan barricades. But how, exactly, do minds have to meet?

The italicized sentences suggest that, for Brooks, it’s a matter of Republican and Democratic politicians putting their philosophical differences aside and reasoning together. That’s easier to do, he thinks, when politicians surrender to their inner wonks—or at least authorize the wonkiest members of their respective caucuses to speak for them.

That’s why Brooks is so taken with Obama’s performance as professor-in-chief; he assimilates legislating to leading a seminar of ambitious graduate students, each trying to prove that he’s smart enough to deserve the professor’s undivided attention. Brooks’s disdain for congressional leaders in the business of twisting arms and counting votes is the other side of the same coin (my emphasis):
“The second useful thing about the meeting was that it bypassed the Congressional power structure. As usual, the quality of the comments got worse the closer you got to the party leadership. The Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid, gave remarks that veered between the misleading and the incoherent. Statements from Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, were partisan spin. The Republican leaders, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, were smart enough to stand back and let Senator Lamar Alexander lead the way, which he did genially and intelligently. While Alexander was speaking, Reid and Pelosi wouldn’t even deign to look at him.”
All of this would make some sense if legislatures were really "deliberative bodies.” But that’s just a figure of speech. Legislatures don't "deliberate" in the manner of a rational individual by applying facts to principles to come to a rational conclusion. Legislative "deliberation," if you want to call it that, is a matter of aggregating the preferences of legislators (who in turn aggregate the preferences of their constituents) into a collective decision. Even if every one of those legislators were scrupulously rational, it wouldn't follow that the result of their collective "deliberation" is even coherent, much less rationally defensible, as policy because it isn't the product of any single intelligence. When Congress acts, you can say, if you like, that it expresses the “people’s will,” as long as you understand that the only collective “will” an assembly of individuals can have is an artifact of the machinations of grubby vote-counters like Reid, Pelosi, McConnell and Boehner.

This implies that the “meeting of minds” pertinent to bipartisanship is a matter not of shared thoughts but of overlapping preferences. Republicans and Democrats can do legislative business insofar as they each collectively prefer some common set of outcomes to the status quo. Typically, each side has conflicting preferences about which member of that set should be enacted, so they’ll usually have something to bargain over. That’s where the Reids and the McConnells come in. Where there’s no common set of outcomes that each side collectively prefers over the status quo, there’s not going to be any bipartisanship, period.

If any of what I’ve said is right, Obama’s professorial acumen is beside the point. When wonky intellectuals pretend that it’s what matters most, they’re letting intellectual vanity get the better of them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gridlock is often the alternative to bipartisanship. But why assume that gridlock is a deplorable failure to make pubic decisions rather than a public decision to keep things they way they are? When you can't reach a democratic consensus about where to go, it makes sense to stay where the last democratic consensus left you.