Sunday, February 8, 2009

Partisanship - It's Their Nature

In the hours immediately following President Obama’s historic victory when everybody was holding hands and singing Kumbaya, I couldn’t help asking Is This the End of Partisan Politics? After this last week of hardcore partisan ranting over the proposed stimulus bills in Congress, it’s clear that we needn’t have worried.

The election of President Obama gave so many of us hope for two reasons. One was that conservative ideology that had a stranglehold over US politics over the last 8 years was finally going to be overturned in favor of more progressive policies. And secondly, the hyper partisan atmosphere in Washington D.C. was going to be replaced by an atmosphere of cooperation between the Democrats and Republicans. After all, we are in an economic crisis and everybody wants to see our new president succeed, right?

Maybe not. In my mind there is still a powerful disincentive for bipartisan politics for the party that is out of power. Just suppose that President Obama with bipartisan support turns out to have a wonderfully productive four years. That would be great for America, but how would the Republicans ever recapture the White House? Or any of the seats in Congress they have lost.

And even though Republicans have suffered serious election losses of late, there is still a hard core group of conservatives who need their daily ration of red meat from conservative media stars like Rush Limbaugh. Any hint of bipartisanship by somebody like Rush would likely mean the loss of most of his audience.

Perhaps the most egregious example of hyper partisan politics is former VP Dick Cheney’s
interview with the political website Politico.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there is a “high probability” that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in coming years, and said he fears the Obama administration’s policies will make it more likely the attempt will succeed.
Former administration officials criticizing a present administration is usually considered bad form even in Washington. But something like this after Obama is only on the job for two weeks is a bit much. And to prove that no partisan criticism is too trivial to pass up, we have Bush Chief of Staff
Andrew Card criticizing Obama for (horrors!) not wearing a suit jacket while working in the Oval Office.

Now President Obama has an economy in crisis that
shed 598,000 jobs in January. Obviously something has to be done quickly and most mainstream economists agree that in this dire situation, the government has to be the spender of last resort which has led to the stimulus plans that are being considered by Congress.

“Businesses are panicked and fighting for survival and slashing their payrolls,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s “I think we’re trapped in a very adverse, self-reinforcing cycle. The downturn is intensifying, and likely to intensify further unless policy makers respond aggressively.”

So while Obama has pursued bipartisanship in trying to pass a stimulus bill to try and rescue the economy, he has underestimated how entrenched the partisanship is in the opposing party.

And while there is room for disagreement between the Democratic view of what a stimulus should be (mostly government spending) as opposed to a Republican view (mostly tax cuts), voters knew on Election Day that the next president would have a failing economy to deal with. And if they wanted the Republican solution of mostly tax cuts, they would have elected John McCain. So maybe it’s time for President Obama to dispense with the excessive bipartisanship efforts that are getting him little or nothing in return and use his Democratic majorities in Congress to pass the Democratic policies he was elected to give us.

But finally, one has to wonder why the Republicans are resorting to such obstructionist tactics when our economy so urgently needs to be rescued. After all, if we fall into a depression because we did nothing or not enough, both Democrats and Republicans would be doomed to suffer. Maybe it’s just their nature like in the fable of
The Scorpion and the Frog.

The story is about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion reassures him that if it stung the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown as well. The frog then agrees; nevertheless, in mid-river, the scorpion stings him, dooming the two of them. When asked why, the scorpion explains, "I'm a scorpion; it's my nature."

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