John Buell

The Bipartisan Fallacy

My state Senator, Brian Langley, (R-Ellsworth, Mount Desert Island) asked a question many Democrats around the country have to field: are there “maverick” Democrats analogous to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) who purportedly put country ahead of party?

Sen. Langley’s impassioned critique of the supposedly ideologically rigid Democrats has an easy answer, but does raise another important question. As to his accusation that Collins has no counterpart Democrat willing to work across the isle, there are several obvious examples. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) has voted against environmental rules related to coal mining, and earned an NRA “A” for his gun control votes. Democratic senators in oil and gas producing states have tended to vote against the Obama era cap and trade climate bill, and those from Western states are likely to defend weaker environmental grazing requirements on public lands.

Nonetheless, the most striking willingness to compromise has been at the top of the Democratic ticket. No president has been more willing to compromise than was Barack Obama. That may sound good, but how, when, and on what issues one compromises makes all the difference.

At the start of his presidency, Barack Obama faced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Some administration economists advised him privately to propose a stimulus package in the $2 trillion range. He rejected that advice in the hope that a figure under a trillion would attract some moderate Republicans. In addition, he consented to other revisions, including tax cuts, always a favorite of Republicans, despite caveats that tax cuts carry a lower multiplier effect than does direct government spending.

He pursued these compromises even as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) advised his colleagues to do anything in their power to assure the failure of the new administration. Obama’s efforts did convince Republican Sens. Collins, Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to vote for the bill.

Nonetheless, the House was a different story, and one that would set the tone for the rest of Obama’s presidency. Here is Politico’s summary: “Most striking was the stonewall of Republican opposition in the House, even after huge job losses in January and the many changes made in the package since it was first debated weeks ago. … Republican aides had predicted this week that 10 to 20 party moderates could join in supporting the bill. But the grassroots pressure from conservatives has been immense, raising fears of Republican primary challenges. The result appears to be a hardening of positions.”

In that judgment Politico was borne out. No Republican senator, even Collins or Snowe, voted for so-called Obamacare, which itself had also been scaled down to preserve the role of the insurance giants in the futile effort to win Republican votes.

No one can ascertain the political and economic outcome had Obama vigorously promoted the larger and better-targeted stimulus package. He might have lost a few Democrats and thus been forced to revert to the more modest and inadequate proposal. Nonetheless, at the very least he could have employed the bully pulpit of the presidency to highlight the positive role public job creation programs have played in economic growth. I am surrounded by one of those shining triumphs, including Acadia National Park and its splendid carriage paths.

The recovery from the world financial crisis bas been extraordinarily slow and leaves gaping inequality in its wake, an outcome foreseen by some of Obama’s advisors. As it was, the weak recovery and Obama’s tepid defense of public-sector spending helped enable intensified attacks on the welfare state. Eurozone nations, whose fiscal powers are even more legally and politically constrained, have endured even slower and more inequitable recoveries.

Langley’s critique does suggest an even more fundamental issue: Is bipartisanship always good? There is more agreement between some factions of both parties on some key issues than is generally recognized. Bipartisan coalitions have ratified international trade treaties that undermined working class wages and rights. Similar coalitions have deregulated finance and thereby helped facilitate the near collapse of the world economy.

In the face of that near collapse, coalitions across party lines then bailed out banks while leaving the bankers and their bonuses in place. Substantial factions of both parties warn the electorate that our government can, or even is, going broke, despite the fact that inflation is nowhere in sight and the role that large deficits played in our winning a World War and escaping the Great Depression. As a consequence our infrastructure rots and we are subject to increasing day-to-day dangers.

Perhaps the most shameful instance of bipartisanship is the role of Democratic Party leaders on national security and civil liberties issues. Commenting on recent attempts by some rank-and-file Democrats to limit the administration’s rights to spy on US citizens, Intercept columnist Glenn Greenwald commented: “Democrats who most aggressively defended Trump’s version of the surveillance bill — the Democrats most eager to preserve Trump’s spying powers as virtually limitless — were the very same Democratic House [leaders] who have become media stars this year by flamboyantly denouncing Trump as a treasonous, lawless despot in front of every television camera they could find.”

Corporate trade treaties, bipartisan fear mongering, financial deregulation, budget- balancing obsessions coupled with banker bailouts have left in their wake an angry and frightened working class. Many are all too susceptible to odious xenophobic and demonizing politics. Gridlock might be preferable.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2018

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