Saturday, May 17, 2008

Demonstrating Bipartisanship The Wrong Way


David Ignatius has a silly idea for Barack Obama:
By reaching outside the Democratic Party for his vice presidential nominee -- tapping Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, say, or independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg from New York -- Obama would in an instant demonstrate that he truly means to change the divisive, lose-lose politics of Washington. It would offer a unity government for a country that seems to want one.

There are all sorts of practical arguments against such an unconventional choice -- not least that it would upset many of Obama's liberal Democratic supporters. But it would make a powerful statement that Obama really does want to govern in a different way. It would make "change we can believe in" more than a slogan.
No, the "not the least of which" argument is that when you vote for a President from a particular political party, you don't expect that in the event of his incapacity that the Presidency will shift to the rival party. If Ignatius brushes up on his history, he should learn that the purpose of joint tickets is to make sure that the President and Vice President are from the same party.

But it does make me wonder... what would the punditocracy say about an Obama/Powell ticket?
By choosing a veteran politician outside his own party, Obama would solve three problems at once: He would undercut the bipartisan appeal of his maverick GOP rival, Sen. John McCain; he would ease voters' fears about his own youth and inexperience...

This would work by sending the message, "I'm like G.W. Bush, and there aren't any Democrats who have sufficient national security credentials to even be as impressive as the mendacious, scheming, non-veteran Dick Cheney"? Great idea. You know what? The innuendo that Obama is "too young" or "too inexperienced" flows not from his actual age or experience, but from members of the punditocracy like Ignatius. So perhaps Obama is better served by scoffing at the suggestion, and challenging Ignatius types to back up their rhetoric with substance.
... and he would find a compelling alternative to Hillary Clinton, who for all her virtues as a vice president would come with heavy baggage - not least the role of her husband, who is even harder to imagine as Second Laddie than as First.
Okay, now that's just silly. If Hillary Clinton wants the VP spot, in all likelihood she'll get it. Nobody wants the fight, or party divisions likely to again erupt, if she lobbies for the job and is rejected. If she does not want the job, she won't be asked. Innuendo Bill Clinton? That's more suited to a Maureen Dowd column, David. Leave that stuff to others.
Moreover, Obama needs to counter the charge that he talks a better game about bipartisanship and change than he has actually delivered. His voting record in Illinois and Washington mostly has been that of a conventional liberal, and there are precious few examples of him taking political risks to work across party lines.
And we're back to, "If the pundits say it, it must be so."
McCain, by contrast, has actually fought the kind of bipartisan battles that Obama talks about - from campaign finance to climate change to rules against torture - and he has the political scars to prove it.
So Ignatius raises three issues to demonstrate McCain's "bipartisanship". First, campaign finance reform. McCain became the "maverick" behind campaign finance reform not by working toward bipartisanship, but by taking a stance against his own party. Look at the actual vote - 60 to 40, with 38 of the "nays" coming from Republicans. That was much less an example of bipartisanship than it was an example of McCain crossing the aisle. Does Ignatius understand the meaning of the word "maverick"? It's not a synonym for "consensus-builder".

The second example, "climate change". If bipartisanship means offering watered down proposals to try to bridge the gap between effective reforms and ineffective reforms, he gets some credit. But if we're actually looking for a President who will advocate the most effective solutions, that brand of bipartisanship falls short. What is Ignatius overlooking? The importance of leadership. That's what Obama is offering on this issue, as the Republican Party is full of climate change laggards. To use a word that G.W. likes to throw around, the type of compromise McCain is offering constitutes appeasement.

The third example, "rules against torture".... Ignatius has forgotten McCain's flip-flop? Or is he speaking of McCain's failed anti-torture amendment, supported in the Senate by a 90:9 vote, that failed due to threatened veto? Are we now defining a proposal that pretty much everybody already supports as representative of "bipartisanship"? If Obama floats a "Sense of the Senate" bill lauding the beauty of the American flag and gets a 100:0 vote of support, is proof that he can "work toward bipartisanship"?

The best thing I can say about this column is that virtually no one will take its suggestions seriously.

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