Last week the political world was all agog over Ryan Lizza's New Yorker article about the administration in which he revealed that after three long years of GOP obstruction the president resigned himself to the fact that post-partisanship wasn't going to work out. It may have shifted something fundamental --- for the first time people in the Village are questioning whether their beloved bipartisanship is the only way the government can function.
Lizza reminds people that Obama had always held a starry-eyed view of the various divides in the American political culture (a concern that was so aggressively attacked by his supporters in the 2008 race that those of us who raised it were left with permanent scars from the experience.) Indeed, in this respect, Lizza's analysis seems stale to me --- it's just that it apparently took four years for it to be allowed to be aired publicly. Still, it's an important piece of political journalism that may turn out to be politically significant:
If there was a single unifying argument that defined Obamaism from his earliest days in politics to his Presidential campaign, it was the idea of post-partisanship. He was proposing himself as a transformative figure, the man who would spring the lock. In an essay published in The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan, a self-proclaimed conservative, reflected on Obama’s heady appeal: “Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.”
Wasn't it pretty to think so? But it was always daft. This yearning to get past these "quarrels" was to make the fatuous assumption that they were the petty, transient disputes of spoiled children rather than the manifestations of America's deepest and most abiding divisions. Those "quarrels" were around war, race, imperialism, equality, freedom --- all issues that have animated our politics from the very beginning of the Republic. The country was founded on them. The fighting over these issues waxes and wanes but the fight itself is definitional. While the symbolism of the first black president was always very powerful, mistaking that symbolism for an end to all these tedious disagreements was a first degree error.
As Lizza writes:
It would be hard for any President to reverse this decades-long political trend, which began when segregationist Democrats in the South—Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond—left the Party and became Republicans. Congress is polarized largely because Americans live in communities of like-minded people who elect more ideological representatives. Obama’s rhetoric about a nation of common purpose and values no longer fits this country: there really is a red America and a blue America...
I readily forgive the youthful supporters who always believe their parents' battles are no longer worth fighting. Why should they? They don't know yet that they are always with us in some form or another and that it's as necessary to vigilantly hold the line as it is to make progress. (Two steps forward, one step back --- sometimes worse than that.)
But what's Andrew Sullivan's excuse? He's been involved in American politics for decades. Surely he saw that the modern conservative movement has become a retrograde, obscurantist, political faction that has every intention of acting out its dystopian agenda without any thought to its opposition. Indeed, politically mowing down their opposition is what animates them. They impeached a president over a sexual indiscretion. They stole an election. They bullied their way into an war on blatantly false pretenses and dared the world to defy them. What delusion would propel an allegedly sophisticated political observer to think that these people would be so dazzled by the election of a black Democratic president that it would all magically end and we would march together into a harmonious future?
And more importantly, why did Barack Obama and his team think this? And they did. As Lizza writes:
In 2006, Obama published a mild polemic, “The Audacity of Hope,” which became a blueprint for his 2008 Presidential campaign. He described politics as a system seized by two extremes. “Depending on your tastes, our condition is the natural result of radical conservatism or perverse liberalism,” he wrote. “Tom DeLay or Nancy Pelosi, big oil or greedy trial lawyers, religious zealots or gay activists, Fox News or the New York Times.” He repeated the theme later, while describing the fights between Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich-led House, in the nineteen-nineties: “In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage.” Washington, as he saw it, was self-defeatingly partisan. He believed that “any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in” ...
Obama wrote longingly about American politics in the mid-twentieth century, when both parties had liberal and conservative wings that allowed centrist coalitions to form.
Cheap Villager nostalgia, nothing more. Unless you define the "center" as splitting the difference between the far right fringe and the most corrupt Democrats, those days have been long gone for many years:
The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.
The idea that the permanent political establishment in DC would step in to put this crazy genie back in the bottle was absurd. They have stood by as the political system catapulted off a cliff without blinking an eye. Indeed, the centrist establishment used that partisan polarization to advance a corporate friendly austerity agenda. It was good for business. And that's what they care about.
The great rapprochement --- like the Grand Bargain --- was a pipe dream, and it was one that many, many Democratic voters enthusiastically bought into. I suppose after years of bullying from the hardcore rightwing partisans you can't really blame them. Needless to say it was never even remotely possible --- certainly not at this point in the development of the conservative movement.
Lizza says the president is chastened by his first three years. He's realized the limits of the presidency, that rather than being a "director of change" he's a "facilitator" who has learned to work the system rather than overhaul it. Lizza implies that this is simply how it had to be. But I'm not sure I agree with that. Certainly this grandiose notion of "post-partisanship" was impossible. But could he have been a "director" of change? I don't know. But the president came into office with the opposing party discredited, a large majority and a very large crisis. With a more clear eyed perspective, the art of the possible was expanded, at least for a time.
An earlier understanding of this might have led to a better outcome:
Predictions that Obama would usher in a new era of post-partisan consensus politics now seem not just naïve but delusional. At this political juncture, there appears to be only one real model of effective governance in Washington: partisan dominance, in which a President with large majorities in Congress can push through an ambitious agenda.
Lizza claims that President Obama did just that in his first two years. I think that's being very generous. He did pass a stimulus plan and the health care plan --- both of which suffered tremendously for the insistence on trying to get Republican buy-in long after it was patently obvious they were doing nothing more than watering down the bills before coming out against them. And the long delays gave the right the political space they needed to regroup and come back swinging: 2010 successfully ended any hope of a dominant partisan majority. It's hard to believe that a more realistic understanding of the partisan divide couldn't have created a better outcome.
But let's face facts. Even though the president seems to have abandoned his "post-partisan" fantasy and the right has re-surged strongly, there still persists a belief on the left that there is a magic formula that will break down all these unpleasant cultural and political divisions and bring the parties together. It's no longer the dream of an all powerful president who will heal our divisions by his mere presence. Today it's that we will be able to transcend our differences around policy.
Some believe we will forge new coalitions with Republicans on economics (a long held, never fulfilled dream.) Others think it will be around civil liberties or imperialism. And certainly there will be discrete pieces of legislation that can be passed in a "transpartisan" way. There always have been parochial and individual rationales for working across the aisle on occasion. Sometimes, rarely, even on principle. But a new political coalition? Unlikely. Particularly now, with the nation under stress and the Republicans hunkering down. The deep divisions we see in our politics were baked into the American cake from the beginning. It goes way beyond legislation. It's about identity.
Like I said, this phenomenon waxes and wanes. There are always periods of cooperation and relative peace interrupted by turmoil and partisan battle. Once we even had a war over it. Right now, after a decades long right wing assault and the total capitulation to its premises by the centrist establishment and corporate Democrats, whatever peace is attained by compromise will come at the expense of vulnerable people --- the elderly, children --- and liberalism in general.
I'm glad the president finally realized that he was trying to govern a nation that didn't actually exist. It won't make the outcome any better, but clarity is always good for its own sake. And it's good that the DC press has discovered partisanship again. Ed Kilgore summarizes the illuminating moment:
Presumably spurred by a Gallup analysis on Friday of partisan splits in approval ratings of recent U.S. presidents, both Politico (John Harris and Jonathan Allen) and WaPo’s The Fix (Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake) devoted top billing this morning to an effort to dash any remaining hopes of bipartisan action on the nation’s major challenges before 2013 at the earliest.
This rather banal realization is interesting primarily because it has emerged from the Beltway redoubt of those most likely to harbor the illusion that Great Big Adults in both parties ought to be able to get together and cut deals that can then be sold to the rubes around the country as representing a victory for their team.
I'm sure this news is equally unpleasant to many liberals who hate this system and will make more than a few join the growing chorus which says that electoral politics are a corrupt sewer and a big fat waste of time. And they may very well be right, at least in this moment. We are probably looking at a fairly drawn out period of political trench warfare --- ugly, boring and unsatisfying. I'm all ears if someone has a better idea. (Don't start the revolution without me!) But until that glorious day, somebody should probably keep plugging away in the trenches and trying to move the dial back to the left, even if it's inch by painful inch.
To that end, you can support these people for congress. It's one way to make change in smaller increments in our battered democracy.
And if you're looking for a silver lining, Kilgore wryly provides it:
[I]t is nice to see that the illusion of easy bipartisanship is now largely limited to Americans Elect supporters who somehow think partisans are preventing the American people from embracing by acclamation an agenda of wildly unpopular “entitlement reforms” and tax increases.
Take your victories where you can. That is good news.