Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Bi-Partisanship Dead?

Passage of the health care reform bill without a single Republican vote raises the strategic question whether it is even worthwhile for the Democrats and the Obama administration to continue to try to negotiate with Congressional Republicans to pursue the Democrats' agenda.  Perhaps they would have just as much success relying on their own members, instead of making futile efforts to compromise important legislation in the illusory hope that a few Republicans can be persuaded to get on board.   A lot of people who have been second-guessing the president's strategy for months contend that if he had opened the negotiations by demanding a single payer system, or if he had pushed the public option idea harder, we might have ended up with a bill closer to what more liberal Democrats wanted.  So many compromises were made to attempt to win over the Charles Grassleys and the Olympia Snowes.  Maybe those compromises were unnecessary since not even moderate Republicans could be induced to vote for the final package.  Research also supports a theory of negotiation (called "anchoring") that advises that starting from a more extreme position will tend to get a party a better result in the end.  Even though I think there is merit to the "anchoring" idea in negotiations, I am not prepared to second-guess the administration's strategy.  We really have no way of knowing if a more aggressive initial posture would have resulted in a more "liberal" bill.  It seems equally likely to me that a more aggressive negotiating posture could have derailed the entire process.  Look at how much anger and backlash erupted against even this moderate bill.  Imagine the tea party protests that would have occurred if the administration had been pushing a true government takeover of the health care system.

I also think that even though no Republicans voted for the final bill, that was the result of a tactical decision by the Republican leadership, and there is actually a bit of support for many of the health care reforms among at least some Republicans.  The initial vote in the House last year included one Republican vote, and Senator Snowe initially voted in favor of reporting the bill out of committee.  Other Republicans have spoken in favor of some of the bill's elements in the past, and could be secretly in favor of some of the reforms.  But Republicans are somehow better at managing party discipline than Democrats, and when the leaders told their members to just say no, they all fell in line.  There are some prominent voices, notably David Frum, questioning whether the Republicans were smart to adopt such a negative strategy.   If Frum is right, then the Democrats made the smart tactical decision to reach across the aisle, and the Republicans made a huge mistake in rejecting those overtures.  Only time will tell, of course.

The final vote on health care reform might also not turn out to be a good indicator of whether bi-partisanship would work in other areas.  In dealing with issues of less prominence, some Republicans might decide that it is in their political interests to support compromise legislation.  A number of Republicans already voted for the jobs bill.  Another item clamoring for attention on the agenda could be immigration reform.  President Bush and a number of Republicans supported that effort the last time it came up, and some Republicans could do so again  (understanding that the anti-immigrant fervor of the most rabid portion of the Republican base will make it a problem for most Republicans to support immigration reform).   It is not only smart politically for at least some Republican Congressmen to support immigration reform (otherwise they can kiss the huge Hispanic vote good-bye), it is also in the business interests of a lot of Republican constituents to legalize their workforces.  For similar reasons, there could also be a few Republican votes for environmental legislation, or financial regulation.

Democrats also understand that their majorities are probably going to shrink in the next Congress, so bi-partisanship may become more of a necessity.  So after some of the anger dies down on both sides, cooler heads should probably recognize that the idea of bi-partisanship is not entirely dead.


  1. David Frum is rewriting history. Democrats had no real intention to work with Republicans on health care--the loud bromide from Dems that Repubs were being obstructionists was just making cover for ObamaCare in its most liberal form.

    Democrats had to pass ObamaCare no matter how ugly it was or they would have effectively made Obama a lame duck president while a Democratic House stood watch. Unacceptable. Democrats sitting in Red districts will essentially march into fixed bayonets in November. Then bi-partisanship will be palatable.

  2. You really should read what the liberal commentators have been saying about health care reform. Many of them are mad as hell that the public option was abandoned.

    Whether Frum is right or not neither of us can say yet. It depends how the Republicans' strategy works for them in the next few years.

    Your last point seems right. Failing to pass this bill would have been disastrous for the Democrats. And some individual Representatives may in fact lose their seats this November for the good of the party. You have to admire their courage, don't you?

  3. ...and the Republicans killed it.


  4. Had the Democrats not left the GOP healthcare proposal dead I'm sure they would have gained some votes. As it stands, Democrats OWN it now.

  5. I hope the Republicans let the Democrats own it. But I wouldn't be too surprised if the Republicans eventually start taking credit for all the benefits of this bill, just like they go home and take credit for stimulus projects that they voted against, and just like they act like they are big defenders of Medicare, even though Republicans were dead set against Medicare when it was passed.

  6. "You have to admire their courage, don't you?"

    Courage? I don't believe that politicians, in general, have such a virtue. It is rare among them. I do think that many vulnerable Dems were persuaded to believe that they may be spared the axe if the economy improved enough or if Obama stumped for them.

  7. Dems made a big mistake. They will pay for it in November.

  8. Harrison want to bet on whether Nancy Pelosi will still be the speaker in the next Congress?

  9. I dig yer stuff Joe! Nobody has taken the bet yet, but I'm considering it. Can I get some favorable odds? Say 3 to 1?!