Enough with the new bipartisanship

Barack Obama may "hunger for a different kind of politics," but it won't happen without a reorientation toward a more progressive center.

By Joe Conason
Published January 19, 2007 8:20PM (EST)

Nonpartisan politics sounds like a contradiction in terms. Bipartisan politics sounds like an old campaign bromide. And the even more irritating "post-partisan politics" sounds like nothing more than a buzzy slogan designed to please everyone all the time. But please don't tell that to the fervent enthusiasts who feel they have discovered a fresh, clean and totally cool way to save us from ourselves.

The urge to merge (or purge) the two parties is back.

Partisanship, which supposedly stands for everything mean, nasty, impure, corrupt and divisive in Washington, is out -- or so the mainstream pundits and consultants tell us. Nonpartisanship and its equally bland twin, bipartisanship, which symbolize all that is polite, decent, pure, patriotic, constructive and unifying, are in again. Or so we are informed by such authorities as the founders of Hotsoup.com and Unity08.com, two Web sites that seek in different ways to capitalize on our weariness with the Republicans and the Democrats.

Post-partisanship, the newest new thing, is a term often used by journalists to ascribe moral content to Obama-mania -- the pop star hysteria that surrounds the highly inspiring, exceptionally intelligent and very junior Democratic senator from Illinois. Barack Obama encourages that illusion when he explains that his nascent presidential campaign is motivated by the "hunger for a different kind of politics" that transcends the "bitter partisan" patterns of Washington.

Certainly that is the spirit behind Unity08, brainchild of former Republican consultant Doug Bailey, as well as Hotsoup.com, which went live last fall under the supervision of a bipartisan team of investors that includes former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, former Bush-Cheney campaign manager Matt Dowd and a host of other professional political consultants.

In case anyone doesn't know, Unity08 is the engine of an "independent presidential ticket" -- one Democrat and one Republican -- that will somehow arise from Internet financing and an "online primary." Hotsoup is a more typical Internet business, which hopes to build an online community where important (or self-important) players in politics and business mingle with millions of citizen "opinion leaders" in discussion and debate.

If Unity08.com ever extends beyond the orbit of its founders -- which includes former Jimmy Carter advisors Gerald Rafshoon and Hamilton Jordan and former Dean for America consultant Nicco Mele, who has already endorsed John McCain -- its most likely impact will be to make a little mischief in the tradition of Ralph Nader or Ross Perot. (The irony is that Rafshoon and Jordan already know how distracting and pointless such third-party candidacies can be, if they still remember their own experience with John Anderson in 1980.) As for Hotsoup.com, its unimpressive setup and insipid content seem destined for the same fate as Grassroots.com and Voter.com, which traded on the same sensibility.

Successful or not, however, these sites have the same fundamental premise. They envision a happy space above and beyond the usual partisan differences of a democratic society, or a magical solvent that dissolves special interests, class and ethnic differences, religious disputes and regional loyalties into pure patriotism and civility.

"We all share the belief that partisanship is largely driven by a debate that lacks information and lacks context," said Lockhart when Hotsoup launched, "and we think this community can provide both of those things." Bailey's Election Day 2006 post on the Unity08 Web site was almost messianic: "Be part of a fresh wind blowing in this country, which just might blow polarized politics (and a lot who practice it) right away," he wrote. "Let your vote today be the last you will ever have to make between the lesser of two evils."

Now there is much to be said for civil discourse and all the other fine values that these supposedly nonpartisan/bipartisan/post-partisan politicos profess to uphold. Partisanship is most often bemoaned in Washington, of all places, where the old-timers mourn the absence of comity and friendship between the parties, looking back fondly upon a lost era when elected officials and opinion leaders from across the spectrum drank together in warmth and friendship while doing their best for their country. These nostalgists seem to feel that if only Republicans and Democrats still went to the same Georgetown dinner parties, gridlock would dissolve and America's problems would disappear. It is a conventional-wisdom classic that appears in roughly one out of every three David Broder columns.

But this airy analysis is simply wrong in some very basic ways. The flaws in the American political system cannot be attributed equally to both parties, when one party has more or less monopolized power for a quarter of a century. Nor are both parties the same in any meaningful sense, as the "nonpartisan" scolds incessantly proclaim.

The old style of bipartisanship could not survive the extinction of moderate Republicanism and the rise of conservative extremism, which demonized liberals as godless traitors and eventually forced Democrats to retaliate in kind. It isn't that Democrats and Republicans stopped drinking together and then became polarized. The conscious political strategy of polarization -- used by Newt Gingrich to win a congressional majority in 1994 -- came first. And it worked. Only when Democrats finally found the will and the voice to fight back over the past few years did they begin to regain traction. If there is a new kind of bipartisanship, it will result from the voters' rejection of right-wing polarization and the reorientation of politics toward a more progressive center.

Meanwhile, among the most predictable consequences of the Democratic victory last fall was the sudden desire for civility, bipartisanship and fairness among Republicans -- as if they had always exercised such restraint during their years in power. (In fact, I predicted it in the introduction to "Big Lies.") Equally predictable was the echoing of their concerns by mainstream journalism, which has not yet freed itself from the habit of kowtowing to the right.

As for Obama, who is among the most impressive figures to enter national politics in many years, he will have to do much better than mouthing clichés about the supposed evils of partisanship. He's likable, he's smart, he cares about results, and he has even befriended his Republican colleague Tom Coburn, the nutty ultraconservative senator from Oklahoma. But Obama also votes 97 percent of the time with Democrats in the Senate and his liberal rating is above 82 percent.

If that's "post-partisan," then the two bad old parties have nothing to worry about.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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2006 Elections Barack Obama Democratic Party Republican Party Tom Coburn