Column: Ever-Morphing Bipartisanship

Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

This"bipartisanship" thing, which swept into Washington with a resounding minority mandate in 2000 has been, at best, touch and go. At first glance it seems to work at random: it flies high one day and Foggy Bottoms out the next, as though an invisible political hand is in control. Closet astrologers at NASA have ruled out planetary alignments as a working explanation, and the White House puffs bipartisanship so often its encouragement has become as perfunctory and meaningless as"Have a nice day." Casual readers of the news have good cause to think that on-again, off-again bipartisanship borders on the metaphysical; that it merely blows with the unpredictable popular wind. Its foreseeability is quite hard to get a grip on.

Policy-oriented historians--we who revel in the profession's heretical"prediction game"--prefer orderliness in the universe as opposed, for example, to quantum mechanics' uncertainty principles, so that we can, in fact, predict what will work politically, what won't, and why. Our preference is convenient, because we wouldn't understand quantum mechanics anyway. Like religious zealots, we look for comfortable and sustaining Absolute Truths to guide us.

Recent legislative bills--one formulating the Homeland Security Department; the other, new bankruptcy procedures--provided clues to bipartisanship's predictability, and they're about as good as they get. Aside from times of acute war hysteria, when virtually any sitting president enjoys the equivalent of canonization by both parties, we can posit at least two maxims: bipartisanship reigns when Democrats and Republicans are awash in the same corporate cash, and it goes to the dogs when the present executive branch suspects the separate-but-equal legislative branch of wanting some say, however routine, in the nation's affairs.

Under the first maxim, between-the-aisles cooperation translates into little more than a corrupt conspiracy in which the average schmo gets the shaft. It is corporate America pulling the strings and writing the legislation. The second maxim translates into a joke. The White House may huckster bipartisanship as a political prince of an idea, but ideology remains king and will trump the bonnie bastard any day. Either way, actually practiced or just falsely professed, the entire notion of bipartisanship reduces to a mockery.

Take the bankruptcy bill--which you're about to, like it or not. Credit-card corporations have made sure of that. Since 1990 these friendly financial-service companies have poured $27.5 million on congressional Democrats and Republicans alike to have it their way. The bribery split worked out to 35 and 65 percent respectively, and though that represents some rather rude partisan behavior on the givers' part, the protection racket still left the Party of the People with roughly a $10-million take. (The graft figures don't include a nearly half-million-dollar"debt-consolidation loan" made by MBNA Corporation to a key Democratic sponsor, Rep. James Moran, Jr., just 4 days before the latter fell in love with the bill.)

The resulting bipartisan legislation is so lopsidedly favorable to the monied few that it led the New York Times business page--not the editorial page, mind you--to bluntly pronounce it"a clear victory for the interests of corporate America over consumers," and at a time"when large corporations are otherwise under siege on Capitol Hill." Damn the herd mentality and cheap ingratiation to voters. These chaps just do what they know is right. Right? At any rate, the comely siren of bipartisanship we've been encouraged to follow once again exposed herself as the ugly harpy she is.

As for squabbling over the Department of Homeland Security bill, it's a truly sad moment in the annals of noble cooperation. Turns out W prefers subordinating his urgent--and much-touted bipartisan--war on terrorism to battling the civilization-ending monster of civil service protection. Threats to the nation's security may lurk indeed, but they compare not to the exigency of ensuring"managerial flexibility." Perhaps the new department would protect thousands of lives--but at what cost? Having to grant government-job security to a few 9-5 losers? No way, brother. We're not going down that collectivist road, not even to stop Osama. So much for bipartisanship when it comes to the crossroad of ancient conservative bugaboos.

To those casual newsreaders confused over morphing bipartisanship, here's some advice. Accept it for what it is: fleeting, corrupt, or phony. While you're at it, try embracing the notional benefits of naked partisan doings. Politicians on both sides will always have their ideological bugaboos, as it should be. And politicians will always figure ways to bankroll ambition, whether"should" is a factor or not. The challenge is to align the right money with the right political party. Everyone expects Republicans to remain hooked on the IV of the special monied few. That's their decades-long raison d'etre and accordingly there's no political shame. But shame on congressional Democrats who pretend on one hand to represent what little is left of the progressive spirit and who support with the other hand corporate obscenities such as the bankruptcy bill. By accepting predatory money they landed themselves on the wrong side of things, which is to say, oddly, the quackery of bipartisanship.

© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter

P.M. Carpenter is published weekly by History News Network and

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More Comments:

mark safranski - 8/3/2002

Carpenter needs to check with Babs Streisand and the dotcom leftist centimillionaires. It turns out the W raised more money from contributers donating under $ 200 ( the unmonied many ) for his Florida recount fund than Gore did total for his fund since Gore relied upon almost entirely upon about 100 superwealthy liberals emnating entirely from New York and California ( one exception, Jane Fonda). The hyperwealthy elitist few, who couldn't fill a corner tavern in any working class neighborhood, included figures investigated in the sordid criminal activities of the Clinton years such as the ubiquitous Denise Rich.

I suppose this is a case where it depends on whose ox is being Gored.

Pierre S. Troublion - 8/2/2002

Over the past 30 years Congress has become more arrogant, more ignorant, and more beholden to vastly increased quantities of corporate campaign funding. You can blame voodoo economics (as coined by Bush Senior and practiced by Raygun and Junior), asinine TV with asinine ads suckering us to buy everything from politicians to mouthwash, or the politically-correct dumbing down of primary education and thereby of the voting public - all of which have flourished in the interim- but not bipartisanship, which has declined along with wit, courage, and purposefulness on Capitol Hill.


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