After the House passed the stimulus bill without a single Republican vote last month, many declared the age of bipartisanship under the Obama Administration over. How quickly the pundits and the talking heads who hailed the bipartisanship of the new President trumpeted its demise.
So, is President Obama bipartisan or isn’t he? Everyone wants the answer and they want it now. The media is tracking bipartisanship as if it can be quantified issue by issue and moment to moment. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what bipartisanship is and why it is important.
Bipartisanship is not a sound bite.
Bipartisanship does not occur during a press conference. It doesn’t happen in front of the cameras. True bipartisanship happens out of sight. It doesn’t mean going to a meeting with the other party, only to step outside the room to accuse them of not acceding to your demands. The results of bipartisan cooperation show up in legislation and policy and, yes, on the news, only after the heavy lifting has been done behind the scenes over a long period of time.
Bipartisanship is not a campaign promise.
Every Administration starts off with statements about bipartisanship because it is a great part of a stump speech, particularly in a national election. After all, the President represents all the American people, so of course he needs to work with all of their elected representatives. But we should never confuse rhetoric with action. We need policymakers, not PR flacks.
Bipartisanship is not a negotiating strategy.
Bipartisanship must start with an idea, not a text. It is not one side making edits to the other side’s words. It is two parties collaborating to achieve the best outcome. But instead, in Washington, one party writes a bill and then claims to be leading a bipartisan effort when they ask the other party to comment on it. Accusing each other of not being bipartisan is not the way to create a successful environment for discussing key policy disagreements.
So what is bipartisanship?
Bipartisanship is trust.
Politicians used to build relationships with members of the other party. They used to get to know each other even if they disagreed with each other. True bipartisanship requires the ability to be frank and honest in discussions without worrying that your words will be used against you an hour later on cable news or talk radio.
Bipartisanship is respect.
Bipartisanship does not mean that one side yields to the other on core principles. It means that both sides listen and truly try to understand why the other side believes what they do. It does not mean that one side automatically agrees with the other. It means that both sides enter the room honoring the fact that the other side has an opinion worth considering.
Bipartisanship is a process.
It doesn’t happen because a new President comes into the White House. It doesn’t happen because that President makes a trip to Capitol Hill. It happens because good policy takes into consideration all points of view. It happens over time when the leadership and rank-and-file of both parties meet on a regular basis, not because they need to solve the crisis of the moment, but because they know they’ll need to work together on the challenges of tomorrow and the day after that.
All of these points may seem obvious. Yet, in practice there are few politicians making the effort to craft truly bipartisan legislation these days. Why? Because, unfortunately, bipartisanship is the antithesis of politics, which is what makes it so hard to accomplish in Washington. In a world where the next campaign begins as soon as the last one ends, there is no time to stop being a politician and start being a policymaker. It is much easier to score points on partisan differences than it is to work together to craft truly bipartisan legislation and policy.
But some challenges — foreign policy, national security, the economy — are too important to allow partisan bickering to interfere with concrete solutions. Our problems right now are too great to be solved by either party working alone.
It doesn’t take an Idiot or a Dummy to figure that out.