Op-Ed Columnist – The Gang System – NYTimes.com
Barack Obama is not initiating events (he’s had surprisingly little influence on the stimulus bills’ evolution). But circumstances now present him with a precedent-setting moment of decision. Does he embrace the Gang System and try to use it to create a new style of politics? Or does he remain an orthodox Democrat, deferring to the Old Bulls on legislation, enforcing party discipline and trying to pick off a Republican or two here and there to pass laws?
The liberals already are mobilizing against the Moderate Gangs. On Thursday, the liberal interest groups were intensively lobbying against the stimulus cuts. But there’s no way that Obama, who spent two years campaigning on postpartisan politics, can reject the single biggest manifestation of postpartisanship in the country today. If he does that, his credibility will be shot.
I really, really hate this idea, that it is somehow virtuous to compromise in every situation, at the exact midpoint of what each side is requesting. There’s no thought involved; you just declare yourself a moderate, step back, and feel righteous. It makes no allowance for the fact that, in a polarized political world, the center is itself subjective because it’s determined by the poles. It’s especially frustrating to those who support one side or the other, because the feeling is that you haven’t even looked at our ideas; you’ve just tarred us as “partisan,” dismissed us as “the liberals” or “the conservatives.”
It also perpetuates an irritating stalemate in American politics, where the party of good government and the party of small government compromise with a big government that doesn’t work. It’s everywhere in the government we have (and possibly deserve); it’s what you get with a longstanding mentality of “starve the beast.” If liberals aren’t willing to confront that head-on, then we aren’t worth our salt in politics. If conservatives were unwilling to defend their beliefs, I’m not sure why they would be in politics, either.
I’m also irritated whenever I hear the word “post-partisan.” I voted for Barack Obama largely because I saw shades of the Wellstone model of politics in him (after all, they both came from academia and mastered grassroots organizing). In the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s method (described in The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, not to be confused with Paul Krugman’s book of a similar name), you don’t give up your principles; you hold strongly to them, but you also reach across the aisle to find where your strong beliefs intersect with others’, even those of your supposed ideological archenemies. Wellstone hopped from coffee shop to coffee shop both to campaign and to get feedback on what his potential constituents wanted; what he found was that people who identified as strongly liberal, strongly conservative, or anywhere in between were still mainly concerned with the same issues, like good schools and healthcare. If you get beyond those labels, you can get a lot more done.
So, to hear that the only way Barack Obama can get past the partisan gridlock of Washington is to abandon his principles makes my blood boil. We’ve suffered through decades of conservatives absolutely convinced in the most radical solutions to every problem, and liberals struggling to compromise and giving themselves a raw deal. Barack Obama can and should do what he feels is right, what is in his best judgment, exercising the faith we placed in him through election.
The difference between this and the Bush era needs to be listening and careful consideration. Barack Obama needs to communicate with Republicans, get their input, and address their concerns just as he must do with Democrats. He must treat them equally as governing partners in a system of checks and balances, and as duly elected representatives of their constituencies. He must respect their experience and value their opinion.
Congressional roll calls are a childish way of measuring this, however. If not a single Republican voted for the stimulus in the House, perhaps they were exercising their right not to agree with the President in the end. That is their right, and it doesn’t mean the President is dismissing their concerns, nor does it mean the bill isn’t better for their input. It certainly doesn’t mean we should hold our political process hostage, watering down the bill until the numbers look more “post-partisan.” Sometimes that merely means devoid of strong ideas.
Our political process works through vigorous debate, and it’s for good reason that nothing mandates that everyone agree. In addition, in some situations, a compromise can be worse than either original proposal. Bipartisanship and cooperation are worthy goals. Post-partisanship, silencing the voices of all those who have strength in their convictions, is not.