Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 16, 2009

REDEFINING BIPARTISANSHIP.... At a White House event yesterday, President Obama noted, in praising the health care reform bill that passed the Senate HELP Committee, that the legislation "includes 160 Republican amendments -- a hopeful sign of bipartisan support for the final product, if people are serious about bipartisanship."

It came a day after White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that "bipartisanship" doesn't necessarily have to mean votes from both parties; it can also mean ideas from both parties. "At the end of the day, the test isn't whether they voted for it," he said, referring to Republicans. "The test is whether the final product represented some of their ideas. And I think it will."

Slate's John Dickerson argued that the administration really is "replacing the traditional definition of bipartisanship with their version in the hopes that people don't notice but still like the result."

In a 2007 interview with Frank Rich, [Obama] said: "There are some times where we need to be less bipartisan. I'm not interested in cheap bipartisanship. We should have been less bipartisan in asking tough questions about entering into this Iraq war."

The president has made the case for health care as a national priority. If he thinks Republicans aren't meeting the challenge of the day, then he should go his own way. That might be the right thing to do instead of engaging in "cheap bipartisanship." But to take that route and call it bipartisan would be cheap.

Perhaps. The meaning of the word has never been especially contentious -- for something to have "bipartisan support" it required at least some support from two sets of partisans. Obama and his team have decided to fiddle with the definition a bit, hoping to spin a new understanding of the word. It seems a little silly, and I'm not at all sure it's even worth the effort.

But this broader argument is overlooking some relevant angles, both of which Matt Yglesias has written about recently. Bills that pass with bipartisan support have traditionally meant one party reaching out to moderates from the other party to put together a reasonably good-sized majority. If the usual Senate majority has around 53 members or so, finding some moderates from the other side of the aisle meant passing a bill with as many as 60 votes. It reflected a fairly broad base of support for the legislation.

Under the current circumstances, though, the expectations for the majority are skewed -- Republicans have almost entirely excised moderates from their ranks, and voters have handed Democrats a huge majority. If the governing party passes a bill with 60 votes, all of a sudden, we're told, that's not good enough anymore. In reality, it's a distorted standard -- it's not the Democrats' fault Republicans have become too conservative, failed at governing, and were punished by voters.

It's probably a mistake for the White House to try to change and/or parse the meaning of the word "bipartisan." But it's an even bigger mistake for the political world to hold the Democratic majority to skewed and unreasonable standards.

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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Comments

Another exercise that treats a manipulative Republican talking point like a valid idea that deserves serious discussion.

Posted by: inkadu on July 16, 2009 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

No, No, NO! Just because people voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats doesn't mean that the Republicans shouldn't dictate policy!

Why are you liberals such meanies??

Posted by: Obama / Steelers / etc on July 16, 2009 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

...Republicans have almost entirely excised moderates from their ranks...

This, I think, is a key point. 40 Repubs in the Senate, many of whom are outright nuts. The House is chock full of far-right crazies. Seeking "bipartisanship" is an exercise in futility in such circumstances.

Can't we just give them Alaska and be done with them?

Posted by: JM-NYC on July 16, 2009 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

From the Unabridged Dictionary of Rethugnican-Speak:

Bipartisanship - noun - meaning to give republicans everything they want

True Bipartisanship - noun - meaning to give republicans everything they want and apologize for not having done so sooner

Posted by: AmusedOldVet on July 16, 2009 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

I'd like to point out that, even among just the Democrats, there is a wide range of center to center-right representation. The Republicans, for the most part, now represent what used to be called "the fringes". And while it's probably not a bad idea for the fringes to feel as though their concerns are being heard, there's never any need to bend the whole conversation their way simply for the sake of inclusiveness.

Posted by: Jack Lindahl on July 16, 2009 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

But to take that route and call it bipartisan would be cheap.

Actually, it's Slate's analysis that I find cheap, in the sense that I get it for free on blogs and can see that it isn't worth a damn.

Posted by: JM on July 16, 2009 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

"Can't we just give them Alaska and be done with them?"

You may have to give up Texas as well.

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on July 16, 2009 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

All bipartisanship means is "Get some Republicans to vote for it so we can blame them for it when it goes wrong."

The people in Washington all want to point at each other for blame - just as long as they have a seat when the music stops.

The problem is that the progressives have control of everything so that when things go wrong, whether they started it or not, their blame game is going to target someone. Everyone knows the Repubs are completely out of power - Who are the leaders gonna blame?

Hey blue dogs, that boiling pot is for you.

Posted by: tehee on July 16, 2009 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

jack lindahl beats me to the key point: the dems are a bipartisan party, consisting of liberal democrats, centrist democrats, and moderate republicans hiding out in the democratic party.

the republican party is a collection of right-wing crazies.

as for john dickerson, i keep hoping he'll go away: what a second-rate maroooooon. he's one of several reasons i don't bother with slate.

Posted by: howard on July 16, 2009 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

It's probably a mistake for the White House to try to change and/or parse the meaning of the word "bipartisan."

I agree. I think we should leave the meaning of "bipartisanship" right where it was when the Republicans re-defined it as "date rape" in 2001 - 2006.

Then when we hear Republicans and the "liberal media" whining about the lack of "bipartisanship", we can just remind ourselves that what they're really complaining about is that we're not giving them adequate opportunities to rape us.

Posted by: Jennifer on July 16, 2009 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

It's a difference between the bill and the vote for the bill. If Republicans contribute to the bill, the bill is a bipartisan piece of legislation, regardless of whether they have the balls to follow through with a vote. In any case, Obama used the word "hopefully," since it's not a logical stretch that someone who bothers to insert a bunch of amendments has an interest in seeing the thing pass. So regardless of whether the GOP is serious about the latter, it's certainly not too much of a spin on Obama's part to state his hope.

Posted by: Christopher on July 16, 2009 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

Can these 160 amendments be dropped when no Republicans vote for cloture? Then the Dems can tell them to stick it in their ear and pass it without them through the budget reconciliation process.

Posted by: Marko on July 16, 2009 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

It's probably a mistake for the White House to try to change and/or parse the meaning of the word "bipartisan."

Maybe. He has occasionally said some dumb things. But I wouldn't bet against his word usage in politics, as he has usually spoken really well. He has made "reaching across the aisle" a strong theme of his primary and presidential campaigns. He and the Democrats may claim later that they had such a bipartisan spirit that they incorporated Republican ideas, and the Republicans still voted against. If the law that passes without Republican votes is both good and popular, then the Democrats can portray the Republicans as both wrong and partisan during the next elections.

Or, he may have some other long-term purpose in mind. I think that this will be a theme worth thinking about through at least 2010.

Posted by: MatthewRMarler on July 16, 2009 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

"FDA letter to Proctor & Gamble Product Contamination."

According to Reuters, the FDA sent a letter to Proctor & Gamble in May 2009 about product contamination.

Vicks Nasal Spray, over-the-counter drugs, and Olay products were subject to concern.

The letter was concerned about "filthy machinery, packaging equipment....Proctor & Gamble reportedly sent a letter stating the products were safe before reaching the public, yet, will correct some of the problems addressed.

Wow, that's all I can say. Well, besides the point that it's probably still up to the manufacturer to issues recalls.

Posted by: annjell on July 16, 2009 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

The meaning of the word has never been especially contentious -- for something to have "bipartisan support" it required at least some support from two sets of partisans.

It also presumes both sets of partisans are acting in good faith. The Republicans are not.

it's an even bigger mistake for the political world to hold the Democratic majority to skewed and unreasonable standards.

This. Exactly.

Posted by: Gregory on July 16, 2009 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

I think the measure of bipartisan support should be the polls showing that even a large plurality, if not a majority, of self identified Republicans supporting health care reform.

Posted by: gaardvark on July 16, 2009 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

I say let the GOP have their amendments in the House and the Senate and when both houses have passed bills without any GOP votes, and the bills are in conference committee, strip out each and every GOP amendment. If they complain, explain them what bipartisanship really means.

Posted by: majun on July 16, 2009 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Everybody supports health care reform. (Well, everybody except the straw man the President keeps referring to who always wants to do nothing.) What has gathered actual "bipartisan" opposition is the particulars, including specifically the "public option" and the huge tax increases. Moderate Democrats are in the process of killing the President's plan in the Energy and Commerce Committee. Now that's real bipartisanship.

Posted by: Dave H on July 16, 2009 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

A desperate search for bipartisanship .. or is the merely a search of cover (as in CYA) ?

Posted by: Neo on July 16, 2009 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

There are at least as many, if not more extremist nuts present in the current Democratic caucus than you find in the Republican one. The difference is that they aren't trying to cover up how much they are driving the country to the left, and the public is starting to notice. The Republicans might still screw this up, but the extreme left is handing them a huge opportunity in 2010 and 2012.

Posted by: Daniel on July 16, 2009 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

If there were 99 democratic senators and only one republican senator...that one would rule the senate for the sake of bipartisanship.

When will these senators get it... that we elected a very 'partisan' majority because we don't want 'bi' partisanship or our directive watered down or obstructed by abusing the filibuster rule.

Baucus needs to look at the country and not his colleagues so he can get a sense of what the majority expects of him....and it ain't bipartisanship or weakening of our directives.

"These economic royalist claim that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really fear is that we seek to overthrow their power...and it is our responsibility to overthrow their power..."-FDR...F*#k you Friedman. End the coporatocracy by removing their charters, regulating their activities, increasing their taxes and breaking up monopolies. Right now most of congress is owned by coporatocracies.

Posted by: bjobotts on July 16, 2009 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

I would frame it like this: It has bipartisan support around the nation, with a large majority of the public supporting it, including Republicans. And it was crafted in a bipartisan manner, with participation from Republicans culminating in 160 of their ideas being incorporated. But the few Republicans remaining in Congress are so radically right wing that even given the cooperation and public support, they still didn't line up to support the bill.

Posted by: giantslor on July 16, 2009 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

I say strike all 160 of those amendments and tell the Republicans that unless they play ball they are left out of the process.

Posted by: dan on July 16, 2009 at 8:57 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Christopher and MathewRMarler as well as giantslor

It IS bipartisan because there are 160 + Republican amendments added into the bill. The Republicans can NOT claim that the Democrats didn't listen to them.

Obama will do good by repeating that refrain AND have the new definition of bipartisanship stick.... Of course we could go back to the Republican definition of 'date rape'.... It is up to them.

Posted by: bruno on July 16, 2009 at 10:22 PM | PERMALINK


GOP Bi-partisanship circa 2004: Go F*ck Yourself

Posted by: mr. irony on July 17, 2009 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

Some people here don't seem to understand why your average politician likes bipartisanship. Once the imperfections come to light (and you can't write a 1000+ page bill and limit debate on it without some imperfections getting through- see "AIG Bonuses"), the ones who voted for it can say we all did this together. Otherwise, every member of the only party to pass a "partisan" bill will get blamed for every deficiency in the bill, even those candidates who aren't even in Congress yet. So the bottom line is: if you're sure what you're doing is perfect, go ahead and ignore the other guys. On the other hand, nobody's perfect. Not even liberals.

Posted by: Dave H on July 17, 2009 at 4:52 PM | PERMALINK
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