If you had been watching the historic debate on health care reform this past weekend, it wouldn’t be hard to believe that bipartisanship was dead. The process could not have been more vitriolic. It degenerated to the point of racial and homophobic slurs being yelled at Congressmen. And that was before Congressman Randy Neugebauer yelled “baby killer” from the floor of the House. Fox News served as the mouthpiece of the Republican party as did MSNBC for the Democrats. There were protests and counter protests. The Chamber of Commerce attacked the bill arguing that it would cost jobs while Catholic nuns rose up in its defense.
In the end, it passed. And I’m glad it did. At the same time, I was deeply disappointed by how the debate sank to such a low level. However, I don’t think that this is a necessarily a harbinger of things to come, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. Here’s why: the health care debate was framed (incorrectly in my view) in terms of the deep philosophical differences between the parties. Republicans portrayed the bill as a government takeover of health care. Democrats portrayed the bill as addressing a fundamental human right – affordable health care for all Americans. At the root of this debate is one’s view of the role that government should have in society. Getting bipartisan agreement on such deep philosophical differences is going to be difficult indeed! Considering how the bill was framed by both sides, the intensity of the debate does not altogether surprise me. Democrats and Republicans clearly have very different philosophical views about the role of government and the health care debate was the framework in which that debate played out. What is most disconcerting is the name calling and deeply offensive language used by some in the process.
But all is not lost. Fortunately, on many foreign policy issues the fundamental philosophies of the parties are not pitted against each other. Just recently I wrote about how Democrats and Republicans seem to be coming together on many of today’s important foreign policy issues. Let’s take immigration reform, which is both a domestic and foreign policy issue. Just last Friday Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) released an op-ed in the Washington Post that presented a potential bipartisan pathway to immigration reform. And this isn’t the first time. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) worked together on similar compromises. What makes this issue ripe for bipartisan agreement is that it’s not about the core identities of the parties. There are divided views within both parties. In the Republican party it’s between the business interests that like cheap labor and the “fortress America” Republicans. Also in the Democratic party there are some who feel strongly that the growing number of immigrants represents the strength of America while others fear the loss of traditional “American” values and customs.
Because both parties are split, there is the potential for real compromise on this issue where there wasn’t on health care. As I wrote here, the immigration issue is also about the economy. Our failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform is holding our economy back. Both the libertarian CATO Institute and left-leaning Center for American Progress agree on that.
It’s also good politics. Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. They generally vote Democratic. Our country’s broken immigration system touches many of them and their families on a daily basis. Democrats can’t afford to lose their support and Republicans know they must regain it.
Bipartisanship on comprehensive immigration reform and other foreign policy issues can rise from the ashes of this vitriolic debate on health care reform. It’s good policy and it’s good politics.