Jeb Bush caused a stir this week when he said partisanship in Washington had gone too far. If that doesn’t sound like news, what really drew attention was the former Florida governor’s apparent belief his father and Ronald Reagan would find it difficult to become the GOP nominee these days.
I say “apparent” because Bush’s statement, in an interview with Bloomberg, included one enormous qualifier. Reagan and George H.W. Bush would have trouble with today’s GOP, the younger Bush said, “if you define the Republican Party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.”
Well, that settles that!
The notion that Reagan, at least, would be spurned by the contemporary GOP is odd. In 1980 he was considered far more conservative than the elder Bush, who succeeded him as the Republican standard bearer. Nothing about nominees Bob Dole (1996) or John McCain (2008) places them to Reagan’s right. Even George W. Bush was less aggressive than Reagan on taxes, and his spending, given that unlike Reagan he had a fully GOP-led Congress to work with, is less forgivable.
Yet, Bush didn’t mean Reagan was too conservative for the 2012 GOP.
Until cloning technology allows us to re-create Reagan in the flesh, however, this is just a parlor game. The more pertinent matter is whether Bush was correct to point the finger at partisanship.
Or, even better, whether bipartisanship is the cure for what ails us.
Bipartisanship gave us the No Child Left Behind Act, which both sides now criticize (for different reasons). There was significant support from each party in Congress to authorize the Iraq war, which the left eventually disowned and of which the right grew weary.
The same goes for McCain-Feingold — formally, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — which sought to get “soft money” out of elections but instead led to super PACs.
That’s just in the past 11 years. Back in the Reagan era, when the president struck those bipartisan deals of which Jeb Bush approves so much, “working together” brought us tax cuts but only unfulfilled pledges of reduced spending, and amnesty for illegal immigrants without the promised border enforcement to prevent future illicit border crossings.
I could go on, just as Bush or others could point to good laws that passed with bipartisan support: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for instance.
The point is that being “bipartisan” doesn’t necessarily make a bill good.
Obamacare wouldn’t have magically become good law if a few Republicans had voted for it. The handful of GOP votes for the Dodd-Frank financial reform didn’t prevent it from enshrining “too big to fail” into the law or squeezing credit markets.
A common argument today is that the problem has more to do with obstructionism, that too often one side stands in the other’s way to forestall legislative progress.
The left trotted out this argument back in the health-care debates of 2009-10. In fact, very liberal Democrats spent several months trying to bully moderate Democrats into supporting very liberal policies before Scott Brown’s election to the Senate gave Republicans enough votes even to be obstructionist.
Lately, the GOP-led House and majority-Democrat Senate have disagreed about long- and even short-term plans for taxes and spending. The bipartisan solution being urged is for Republicans to accept higher taxes in order to get lower spending. That happens to be the exact kind of arrangement, economists now warn, that would lead our economy off a “fiscal cliff” in 2013. But at least we’d be holding hands as we took the plunge!
When “bipartisan” means taking the best ideas from both sides, it’s not such a bad thing. If this happens less frequently these days, I chalk it up to two things.
First, while there’s an apparent cry for compromise, there’s very little consensus about what’s an acceptable compromise. We want other people’s taxes raised, or spending that affects other people cut. Politicians don’t advocate splitting things down the middle, because there’s no sign of a constituency for shared pain.
Second, even when combining ideas is practical, the results tend to be smaller than the kind of Grand Compromise we think we need for our toughest problems. But in some cases — health care comes to mind — it’d be better to take several nibbles at problems than to go whole-hog.
Making both sides mad, or happy, too often is just an excuse for not making sure to make good law.
– By Kyle Wingfield