Is Bipartisanship Dead Already?

The bipartisan vultures are busy at work, nit-picking to death President Obama’s desire for a more bipartisan approach. Too bad their short-sighted political maneuverings on the economic stimulus package blur them from seeing the emerging picture: a new political environment is just what people want. And make no mistake it will take a certain toughness to bring it about. First, there are legitimate concerns about different facets of the timulus package, and good people on all sides will disagree. But the fact that the president’s economic package received only three Republican votes in the U.S. Senate has led many pundits and naysayers to proclaim that his bipartisan vision for the nation’s capital is dead on arrival. It’s true that he hasn’t received the kind of Republican support in either chamber that he had hoped for.

The president went to great lengths to reach out to Republicans since assuming office, hosting a Super Bowl party, traveling to the Hill to meet with House and Senate Republicans, inviting Republicans over for cocktails, dialing up Sen. John McCain, not to mention making numerous other entreaties.

The cynics suggest that all his effort was for naught. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding, they say, tastes spoiled. They’re hunkering down for more partisan battles with delight. Representative Pete Sessions, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, compared his colleagues’ partisan efforts to the Taliban, saying, “Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban.” On so many levels, his comment is repulsive. We can do without such “audacity of hype.”

But naysayers and cynics include Democrats too. Some Dems wallow in a kind of “post partisan depression,” still angry over past misdeeds perpetrated by Republican presidents, including George W. Bush. Their memory is long and vivid. They’re busy puffing themselves up to embrace a winner-take-all approach to politics. Some analysts say the president’s trip yesterday to Elkhart, Indiana, is final proof that any promise for bipartisanship has come and gone. His rhetoric was tough and pointed. For further proof, they cite his speech last week in Williamsburg, Virginia, at a Democratic retreat where he drew lines in the sand about his economic proposal and how willing he was to negotiate on certain issues.

Bipartisanship is a dangerous concept, because for some it means that everyone must get along, and all votes transcend party lines. I’m not sure that’s possible, or even desirable. For me, the test is how the different sides are engaging: Is there real debate, honest give-and-take, and good-faith efforts to understand differences, let alone the ability to work them out.  Sometimes this will lead to common ground, others times people will go their own way. But it is this dynamic –and not whether everyone has gathered on the Capitol steps to sing Kum-by-yah – that will lead to a new political environment.

People are sick and tired of politics as usual. Instead of looking in the mirror and only seeing their own reflection, our political leaders must turn outward to see the realities in which people live their daily lives. People are hurting, and those promoting the petty politics of partisanship have worn out their welcome.

Finally, what I am advocating requires toughness, plain and simple. If one seeks a new way of doing business, then one must be ready and willing to call people out when they egregiously step over the line. Pete Session’s comment is but one example.  So-called bipartisanship should not become an effort to smooth over all the rough edges, to accept any and all behavior, or to turn one’s cheek at each and every turn. It’s a fight for a different way to do business.

If we want to create a new political environment, then we must step forward and engage in the fight. Now’s not the time to give in to the cynics and naysayers.