Press Box

Tipsy on Bipartisanship

Obama, Bloomberg, and the press get drunk on compromise, cooperation, and civility.

Barack Obama, bipartisanist

Everybody enjoys an occasional vacation from reason. An evening at the movies after a hard day’s work, a dream-filled nap on those afternoons when life seems too much, or a fat blunt when you’re grouchy at your boss all fill the bill.

Political reporters once relied on the hotel bar for their brief mental holidays, but this campaign season they’re getting smashed on bipartisanship. Barack Obama, who wants to staff his cabinet with Republicans, unbolt gridlock, and unite us all, brews the highest-proof stuff. Even though George W. Bush ran as a “uniter, not a divider” eight years ago, and Bill Clinton preached about the enlightened compromise of the third way 16 years ago, the press can’t detect Obama’s platitudes. Some in the press corps find Obama so blissfully nonpartisan that he’s postpartisan.

And it’s not just Obama working this scam. Everybody’s favorite billionaire mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, joined a slew of out-of-work U.S. senators, former members of the House, and ex-governors in Norman, Okla., yesterday for a “Bipartisan Forum” to polite press in the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Dallas Morning News, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and elsewhere. The session’s closing statement by former Senator and host David Boren served a chewy dough of high aims and happy talk. “You must ask the candidates if they plan to create a bipartisan cabinet and administration,” said Boren in the closing statement. “We must ask the candidates to present a strategy for a unified consensus.”

When we devote ourselves to working together in the name of national unity rather than obsessing on our differences, injustice loves to strike. Writing slavery into the Constitution was perhaps the greatest triumph of nonpartisan compromise in U.S. history. The denial of suffrage to non-property owners and women ranks up there, as do prohibition, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and the so-called war on drugs, declared by President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s and waged bipartisanly by every president—Republican and Democrat—since.

Moving to the contemporary period, we discover that monument to bipartisan accord: the Patriot Act, which passed the Senate 98-1 and the House 357-66. So unified in pursuing the common interest were legislators that they barely debated the bill, and few read it. The No Child Left Behind Act passed with near unanimity, even though nobody much cares for it today.

Washington’s elected officials sing the song of bipartisanship every time they sit down to negotiate and distribute earmarks to their states and districts. Earmarks serve as both bipartisanship’s grease and its energy supply. All those “petty” partisan political differences fade as Rep. John Murtha wheels and deals for his district and bridges to nowhere get built over every chasm and ditch in the nation.

I’ve yet to uncover in my research who gets to decide what constitutes the bipartisan position as opposed to the partisan one on issues. What’s the nonpartisan position on the corporate income tax? Iraq? Universal coverage? The trade deficit? Should we cede that power to Barack Obama just because voters and journalists swoon when he says, “The time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington” and calls for an end to the “political strategy that’s been all about division, and instead make it about addition.”

It sounds heavenly to imagine the banishment of partisanship, gridlock, division, anger, bitterness, pettiness, catcalls, and smears from politics. But once you do that, you’ve basically ended politics, and contrary to Obama, you’ve done  nothing noble. We throw dead cats and insults at one another because we have philosophical disagreements that separate us, and all the smooth talk from political pulpits occupied by Obama and Bloomberg can’t change that for long.

Gridlock was built into our political system to prevent the hasty passage of laws based on someone’s good (or bad) intentions. (When Congress does nothing, at least it does nothing wrong.) Political rifts are wonderfully useful. Just as branches of government are supposed to watch other branches, political candidates are supposed to check and balance those they oppose.

If you embrace compromise for the sake of compromise and ban division for the sake of political unity, you’re left with parties and candidates that don’t stand for anything. At that point, why should anybody want to vote for a smooth bipartisanist like Barack Obama?


I’m a divider, not a uniter. Send me e-mail: (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)