The Future of Bipartisanship

By Bob Burnett

Although President Obama tried to include Republican ideas in his economic stimulus legislation, only three GOP senators and no representatives voted for the final bill. Because Obama promised to change the tone in Washington, his failure to gain Republican support led many pundits to suggest that bipartisanship is dead. What can our new president do to revive comity and develop a more conciliatory spirit on Capitol Hill?

Because of his background as a community organizer, Obama understands how to bring together groups with different objectives and broker agreements. In their classic book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury distinguish three negotiating styles. Soft Negotiation seeks “to avoid personal conflict and so makes concessions readily in order to reach agreement.” Hard Negotiation “sees any situation as a contest of wills in which the side that takes the more extreme positions and holds out longer fares better.” And Principled Negotiation “decide(s) issues on their merits rather than through a haggling process ... Look(s) for mutual gains wherever possible and ... [Where interests conflict] insist(s) that the result be based on some fair standards independent of the will of either side.” Using this framework, “bipartisanship” is principled negotiation, where politicians set aside ideology and the desire for personal gain, and negotiate with an eye to the common good. Obama believes in principled negotiation.

Until recently, Capitol Hill Democrats have been soft negotiators. As a result, Congressional Democrats made concessions while, too often, their GOP counterparts made none. President Bush’s signature domestic legislation was tax cuts for the rich; when the bill passed on May 23, 2001, it was supported by 12 Democratic senators and 28 Democratic representatives. However, starting in 2005, with their disciplined resistance to Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, Democrats stiffened their collective spine and became tougher negotiators.

In contrast, GOP legislators have favored a hard negotiation style. Even in the face of a massive fiscal emergency, Republicans refused to set aside their ideology to search for common ground with their Democratic adversaries.

Writing in, Jay Cost noted that American politics is increasingly polarized: Republicans are becoming more conservative and Democrats more liberal. But polarization doesn’t explain why so few GOP legislators supported Obama’s stimulus plan or why few Republicans are able to engage in principled negotiation.

There are three explanations for the lack of bipartisanship. The first is structural. Most of the GOP senators and representatives who voted against Obama’s stimulus package come from red states or congressional districts. (The three GOP senators who voted for the package come from Maine—Collins and Snowe—and Pennsylvania—Specter; blue states that Obama carried.) Because of gerrymandering, most GOP representatives come from districts where their constituents share their beliefs—government is the enemy, taxes are bad—and news sources—Fox News, Rush Limbaugh.

While this explanation explains many congressional votes, it does not account for the behavior of Republican Senators who come from swing states such as Ohio—purple states that are split between conservatives and liberals.

The second explanation for the lack of bipartisanship is historical. Polarization increased during the Bush administration. Bush and Cheney were hard negotiators and their style worked in Bush’s first term, where he got everything he wanted: massive tax cuts, education reform, curtailment of civil liberties and war with Iraq. Many Congressional Republicans continue to bask in the “glow” of the Bush era and believe the negotiating style that worked then will work now.

While this explanation accounts for the behavior of Republicans who think they have to get more conservative in order to win the hearts of voters, there must be some who see that the tide has turned against them. For example, why do GOP senators who have announced their retirement remain rigidly ideological?

The third explanation for the lack of bipartisanship is psychological. George Lakoff’s Moral Politics noted that conservatives and liberals have different worldviews. The conservative view, the “Strict Father” model, is rule-based: children are taught to respect and obey their parents and the rules they espouse. The liberal view, the “Nurturant Parent” model, is process-based: children are taught empathy and communication; they love their parents because of mutual understanding.

The psychological explanation clarifies the problem of bipartisanship. President Obama is process-oriented, but most Republican Congresspeople are rules-oriented, guided by maxims that have been drummed into their heads for decades: government is bad; taxes steal money from hard-working Americans; and, the free market will fix all social problems.

Bipartisanship is difficult in an atmosphere where adversaries see the world in radically different terms. The good news is that Obama is both smart and steady. He believes in principled negotiation but understands that many Republicans are stuck in a worldview that doesn’t permit them to see the opposing point-of-view and, therefore, renders them incapable of negotiating for the common good. Obama will continue to push bipartisanship and practice comity. Over time, some GOP legislators will succumb to Obama’s process-oriented approach and support for bipartisanship will increase.

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley, Calif., writer. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2009

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