Ben sent me the link to an The American Prospect piece, “The Myth of Bipartisanship,” in which Ezra Klein becomes only the latest writer to declare Obama’s experiment with post-partisan politics dead. Klein even gives one of the more rational accounts I have seen of why it really made no sense for the Republicans to support the stimulus package (a term I do wish that someone in the No-Drama Zone had thought to replace — it sounds like hospital equipment). It’s the role of the opposition party to oppose what a congressional majority and administration of the other party want, and it is a role the GOP is better able to play than ever because of the way everything but their hard southern and western core (the Bryan coalition) has been shorn away in the last two elections.
It was certainly sobering to have the House minority give the historic new president zero votes in his first bid to save the country, but it should not have been surprising, and not just in view of the modern GOP’s total irresponsibility regarding outmoded stuff like the national interest, the common good, and basic factuality. Ideologically the stimulus bill, the very idea of a stimulus bill on this scale, flies in the face of everything that the GOP thinks it has stood for for the last 30 years. I do not credit them for standing against government spending or deficits, since they love both of those as long as they are directed toward the military budget or tax cuts for the wealthy. However, the party of Reagan has pretty consistently set itself against the idea of government spending directed toward some common social purpose and, more fundamentally, against the idea that government can ever effect positive changes besides blowing stuff up in other countries. So the stakes are really quite high for the Republicans, and they are almost certainly going to lose this battle. The final bill may still contain too many tax cuts and not enough spending, but all the GOP has been able to do is fly their Hoover flag high in a time when that is not the public mood, to say the least.
I am a big believer in democratic party systems, and in my own work could probably be fairly accused of celebrating partisanship and partisan politicians. Yet, supporter and understander of partisanship though I may be, and glad as I am to see Obama leaving a bit of his post-partisan stance behind, his experiment did have a larger purpose and a wider audience than most of his left-blogosphere critics seem to understand. Large chunks of the electorate really do believe that partisanship is a problem. They want to see a president more oriented toward bringing people together to solve problems than scoring victories or, more to the point for left-blogosphere critics, engineering massive ideological shifts in American governance.
The thing is, even though the U.S. to some extent invented the modern political party, the institution of the political party has never been fully accepted on a cultural level, especially in the normative culture of middle-class American families. (See the writings of Ronald Forimisano, Mark Voss-Hubbard, and other contrarian political historians for chapter and verse on this.) Think about it: virtually every local club and organization in the country replicates the national political model on its own level, but only in part. Usually there is a constitution and almost always there are popularly elected officials, but how often do you see your local PTA or Elks Club further organized by parties? Almost never on an official level, even in cases (like many school boards) where party ideologies are in fact at work. Frustrating as it is for many of us political intellectuals (if I may), Americans are comfortable with voting in popularity contests, but not with party organization and party ideology and the rest, even in their most high-minded forms. Call it false consciousness, call it self-defeating, but I think that’s where most Americans are at in terms of their ideas of appropriate political behavior.
It is to this broader political culture that Barack Obama has constantly addressed himself, and generally with much more success than practitioners of the neo-partisan approach popular in the blogosphere. Long story short: Obama played in Iowa, but Howard Dean really didn’t, in ways that predicted bigger things to come. There is a place for both approaches, but we need to respect the fact that Obama’s now has some empirical evidence to back it up (i.e., he’s president despite the Republican Noise Machine’s worst efforts). In the case of the stimulus, the president seems to have gotten in the end more or less what he wanted in the first place at the cost of letting the Republicans bloviate on cable for a few days and panicking a few of the liberal bloggers and columnists. In return, he retains the moral high ground and standing with the public at large that he will doubtless badly need for other crises yet to come, including the next stages of this one.
SIDENOTE: The point of Klein’s piece was to call for an end to the filibuster, a rant that I too have inflicted on friends and relatives several times in recent days. While I still think that Harry Reid and his predecessors have made a mistake allowing the filibuster to become more or less automatic, it turns out that the filibuster is not the only constraint empowering those annoying Senate centrists. Read “Why will the stimulus require 60 votes to pass?” It turns out you can learn from the Internets after all. The deeper problem, of course, is equal state representation in the Senate.