Much heralded era of bipartisanship hasn't materialized

Politics,Matthew Continetti
Like a lot of Americans, I thought the 2008 election would usher in an age of consensus. Figures like President Obama and Sen. McCain would forge bipartisan alliances in order to rationalize the U.S. tax code, health insurance system, energy sector and entitlements. In this new age, the D or R appended to the end of an elected official’s name would matter less than his capacity for compromise and moderation.

Boy, was I wrong. Instead of policy fashioned from the middle, we got a stimulus package written by liberal appropriators on Capitol Hill. Instead of Republicans eager to make nice, not a single GOP House member voted for the stimulus, and only three GOP senators supported the president’s bill. Instead of witnessing the resurgence of the vital center, we’re seeing the persistence of ideological politics.

Why? Because of long-term trends and short-term circumstances. The long-term trend is this: For decades Americans sorted themselves by ideology. You used to have liberal Democrats, conservative Democrats, liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans. That’s no longer the case.

The parties used to be less rigid. There was more internal debate. The more radical elements in each party were shunted to the side. The leadership in both parties largely shared the same assumptions. They were more likely to compromise. It was pretty boring. But it was also less polarized.

Over time, though, the Democrats became the liberal party. The Republicans became the conservative party. Ideological consistency made the parties more coherent, but it also increased animosity between partisans. Democrats had less in common with Republicans (and vice versa).

The few liberal and moderate Republicans who were left sought refuge with their liberal Democratic colleagues. But why have a liberal Republican in the minority when you could have a liberal Democrat in the majority? So voters dumped the moderate GOP members in favor of toward-the-middle Democrats. The bipartisan center kept shrinking.

This is where the short-term circumstances come in. Obama won the presidency on a message of national unity. Like his predecessors, he has made bipartisan gestures. He’s appointed Republicans to his Cabinet and consulted with GOP congressmen.

Obama also inherited a dire economic situation, and his first priority was to address the financial crisis and provide relief for those out of work. But he has done so in a way that has heightened the ideological differences between parties, not mitigated them.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that government ought to provide some sort of “stimulus” to the economy in order to counteract what’s shaping up as the worst recession in a generation. The parties disagree, though, on what form the stimulus ought to take. Democrats favor direct spending, and Republicans favor tax cuts. But plenty of Republicans would also support spending more tax dollars on building roads and highways.

Why didn’t they vote for the stimulus? Because Obama and the Democrats wedded real infrastructure spending to “human infrastructure” spending — money for education, health care and alternative energy subsidies. The Democratic policy agenda, in other words. Tailor-made to make conservatives blanch. Was it really a surprise, then, when Republicans said they couldn’t support spending hundreds of billions in this way?

In a move at odds with his own rhetoric, the postpartisan president let the partisan Democrats on Capitol Hill write the major stimulus legislation. But the real surprise came later, when a small bipartisan group of senators tried to cut the stimulus. During the Bush years, a chorus of pundits would have celebrated these moderates for standing up to the president. Instead the moderates were scorned, accused of holding up emergency legislation and cutting the bill in a way that could prevent economic recovery. What’s more, the criticism came from both conservatives and liberals. The center no longer has many friends.

And understandably so. The center takes precedence when the stakes are low. During the Clinton and Bush years, there weren’t many disagreements about the overall size of government. Not anymore. Obama’s stimulus bill put the punch back into partisanship.
To support the stimulus is to support a drastic expansion of the government’s commitments. Maybe such an expansion is necessary; maybe not. Regardless, Obama has unified Republicans because he has reminded them that they are supposed to be the party of small government.

Hence the stimulus is a line of demarcation. You are either on one side of that line or the other. And there is no place left to stand in the middle.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor of The Weekly Standard and author
of “The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine” (Doubleday).

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