It's Not Partisan If We're Doing It

A Time to Fight

A new article by George Parker in The New Yorker decries "partisanship" in the U.S. Senate from the point of view that the core mission of the Senate is the fundamental reform of American society. For Parker, partisanship means holding back progress for base political gain. Predictably, he finds partisanship an evil and baffling habit.

For this kind of mournful piece, the first step is to evoke the Golden Age. There is the traditional recourse to Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1832 praised the Senate's "lofty thoughts" and "generous instincts." After the Civil War, unfortunately, with brief shining moments of "spasms of legislation" under Wilson and FDR, the Senate became “the dam against which the waves of social reform dashed themselves in vain—the chief obstructive force in the federal government.”

Parker interviews an impressive variety of Senators and staff. Although he throws in the occasional admission that "Democrats have been known to do it too," his story is mostly a long jeremiad against the new breed of hardcore Republican partisans who inexplicably use every rule and procedure in the Senate book to block heroic, forward-thinking legislation. “We find ourselves at a moment in our history when the questions are huge ones, not small ones, and where things have been put off for a really long period of time,” mourned Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va). “Yet you have a Senate that’s designed not to advance change but to slow it.” Parker describes the ugly process that led to ObamaCare without a trace of irony, seeming to view it as the triumph of good legislation over baffling obstruction. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill, Democratic Party Whip) said, “I was stunned that only four Republicans would join us in passing this historic [financial regulation] legislation. What does it take to bring the Republican Party into the conversation about the future of America?” Well, just at a guess, perhaps it would take . . . proposing solutions that appealed to a broad majority of voters? In some cases, that can even muster a bare majority of voters?

Parker is deeply disappointed that the Senate reform engine likely has run out of steam. "The two lasting achievements of this Senate, financial regulation and health care, required a year and a half of legislative warfare that nearly destroyed the body." He attributes the damage to partisanship. He does not imagine that the opposition party could be carrying the flag of dissent for the American public. He quotes, but does not seem to understand, Sen. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky, Senate Minority Leader): “To the extent that [Democrats] want to do things that we think are in the political center and would be helpful to the country, we’ll be helpful. To the extent they are trying to turn us into a Western European country, we are not going to be helpful.”

Parker's sources wax nostalgic about the days when Senators formed personal bonds across party lines. “It’s awfully difficult to say crappy things about someone that you just had lunch with,” mused Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn). I'm reminded of the reports of unofficial truces between American and German forces along stagnant fronts in World War I. Mean-spirited officers broke up these heartwarming developments by periodically transferring troops to difficult posts along the line, knowing that human beings naturally form loyal bonds with people in manageably small groups after a period of prolonged contact -- and also knowing that the troops' business on the line was not to foster international goodwill and camaraderie but to win a battle for their respective countries. If the military command hadn't believed the battle was more important than the individual soldiers' diplomatic breakthroughs, they'd probably have let the soldiers go home to practice conviviality among a society of their own choosing.

I have a completely different definition of "partisanship" from Mr. Parker. What I call "partisan" is a Senator's opposition to a policy he genuinely supports, purely for the strategic advantage of damaging his opponents. An example would be Senators who support a war in the first flush of outraged patriotism, but who then begin to backpedal for fear that the public's support is making a President from the opposing party too popular and successful. What I do not call "partisan" is opposition to disastrous policies with every weapon at one's disposal. A progressive movement in this country has pushed reforms for many decades. A strong countermovement has developed among Americans who believe the reforms are wrongheaded and corrosive. As long as the progressives believe reform must be pursued at all costs, they will not confine themselves to measures that enjoy broad public support. As long as that is true, the party of resistance will fight them as if they were enemies, not colleagues.

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