The Limitations of Bipartisan and Centrism

Today's op ed columns are rich in articles by past and present public policy holders calling for Congressional bipartisanship. We endorse finding common ground. There is room for some agreement among both parties in Congress and the Administration on what works and doesn't work for the truly disadvantaged -- based on solid evaluations. And there is some room for agreement on replicating more of what works. But extensive agreement and progress does not appear likely. To the degree that action is taken, it is equally likely to be based on doing more of what has proven not to work.

The emerging political battles for 2002 and 2004 will be fueled by money to politicians from special interests. The race for 2002 and 2004 money has begun early because candidates fear potential campaign finance reform could cut them off. The money will discourage bipartisan action. The Washington media -- especially the all-news channels like Fox, MSNBC and CNN -- will encourage conflict because it improves ratings and increases corporate profits.1

In this environment, what does bipartisanship mean other than symbolic ritual? Bipartisanship is supposed to fix problems and break gridlock. But, as candidates have moved to the middle, the vigor of American democracy has been drained. Distinctions of principle have been blurred. As a result, bipartisanship today often means that we avoid real solutions to pressing problems. The result is highly publicized bipartisan legislation with marginal impact.

As William Greider observes, "For most members of Congress, the legislative process represents a chance to please public opinion by voting for high minded legislation while protecting corporate balance sheets or other interests by acceding to the legislation's deceptive details."2

Such bipartisanship, then, can further disenfranchise the poor. More honest would be "responsible partisanship" within Congress, along the lines of the system in Britain. There, the majority conveys the duty of office. The minority conveys the privilege of the Loyal Opposition.3

Questioning Centrism

Bipartisanship often is the mantra of politicians who seek the middle, a centrist "third way." But centrism today is part of the problem. For example, the 2000 presidential debates were almost uniformly judged sterile and uninformative by media critics -- in part because each side followed a careful script designed to minimize mistakes that would lose votes in the middle. There was little spontaneous, unrehearsed exchange. The middle path also was judged necessary because of the monied political system to which centrists are committed (contrary to some of their rhetoric). Neither party can afford offending big political contributors. Centrists have allied themselves too much with powerful corporate interests and have downplayed the needs of the poor, the working class and minorities. Centrism follows more than leads, and does not have a grassroots base with the people.

The centrist philosophy, conclude some, is "like Rosa Parks saying that it would be all right with her if she could just sit in the middle of the bus."4

Historian James MacGregor Burns has concluded, "While centrists cautiously seek the middle way, leaders in science, technology, education, entertainment, finance and the media pursue their own transforming vision."5 Robert F. Kennedy's vision was transforming. In some ways, he advocated for policies that today's centrists would embrace -- like the need for leveraging public against private resources. But Kennedy was different from today's centrists because he insisted on a coherent national policy for the poor and on national investments to scale. Unlike many centrists, his vision did not abdicate responsibility for lasting solutions.6

Notes and Sources

  1. Joseph A. Califano, Jr., "The Mirage of Bipartisanship," Washington Post, January 9, 2001, p. A23.
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  3. Carla Binion, "Beware of Bipartisanship," TomPaine.commonsense; William Greider, Who Will Tell the People? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).
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  5. Theodore J. Lowie, "A Healthy Dose of Partisanship," New York Times, December 3, 2000, p. WK 19.
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  7. Ellen S. Miller and Micah L. Sifry, "Democracy That Works: Clean Money Campaign Reform," in Robert L. Borosage and Roger Hickey, editors, The Next Agenda (Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 2001, p. 335).
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  9. James MacGregor Burns, "Risks of the Middle," Washington Post, October24, 1999. p. 37.
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  11. Peter Edelman, Searching for America's Heart (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, p. 7).
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