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January 24, 2014 12:43 PM Imaginary Consensus

By Ed Kilgore

I can’t imagine that Jon Huntsman’s strangely anachronistic call for non-partisanship on behalf of the “No Labels” organization at WaPo today is going to strike many chords. Huntsman’s plea to his own party for a less stridently ideological message and agenda during his wildly unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign didn’t exactly win over the GOP. But more importantly, he doesn’t seem to understand that getting leaders of the two parties together to embrace extremely general goals for the country would leave them a million miles away from practical cooperation.

Get this:

The American people, if not their elected officials, are fairly united on major goals for the nation. No Labels asked more than 1,000 registered voters late last year what our government should be focused on. Majorities from both parties pointed to priorities such as creating 25 million jobs in the next 10 years, securing Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years, a balanced budget and energy self-sufficiency.

Trouble is, Republicans by and large think “creating 25 million jobs in the next 10 years” should begin by radically reducing benefits under “Social Security and Medicare,” which is how these programs would be “secured,” and how we would achieve a “balanced budget.” Democrats by and large think insisting on a “balanced budget” any time soon would make “creating 25 million jobs” impossible. They also tend to think the path to a “balanced budget” inevitably involves a stronger public role in health care to hold down costs, a strategy which Republicans almost universally reject not only as unworkable but as a direct threat to both economic growth and essential liberties. How does one sit down and
work out a “national agenda” for reaching common goals when the two parties diverge so fundamentally on the very basics of how these issues fit together? As I’ve argued in the past, a “split the difference” approach to economic, fiscal, health care and energy issues, even if it could happen, would produce an incoherent agenda arguably worse than a tyranny of either party.

The bankruptcy of Huntsman’s argument for imaginary consensus is best illustrated, however, by his extraordinary amnesia about the administration in which he served as ambassador to China. Listen to this:

What if the 45th president consulted with the opposition before taking the oath of office? What if he or she delivered an inaugural address that spoke to the hopes and dreams of both sides?
It may sound like a fantasy. But if the alternative is the status quo, it’s a fantasy worth making a reality.

I seem to recall the 44th president trying to cooperate with the opposition party before taking office—and even before being elected—in dealing with the financial crisis. And here’s an excerpt from his inaugural address, which he delivered before fruitlessly seeking a bipartisan approach on stimulus legislation and health care:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.

Despite a decisive election victory and Democratic control of Congress (including a super-majority in the Senate), Obama reached out repeatedly to the opposition and had his hand repeatedly slapped away. And while some of that triumph of partisanship reflected a strategy of obstruction by the GOP, a great deal of it represented genuine differences of opinion and principle on how to achieve common goals. Just asserting that unity will be achieved when people of good will desire it is not only naive and obtuse, but an insult to those in a divided country who are trying to offer a clear path ahead.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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