David Broder is back on his "end the partisanship" soapbox, a theme he hammers often:
A Polarized, and Polarizing, Congress, by David S. Broder, Commentary, Washington Post: The distinguishing characteristic of this Congress was on vivid display the other day when the House debated a bill to expand the federal program that provides health insurance for children of the working poor.
Even when it is performing a useful service, this Congress manages to look ugly and mean-spirited. So much blood has been spilled, so much bile stockpiled on Capitol Hill, that no good deed goes untarnished.
The State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is ... up for renewal this year and suddenly has become a bone of contention. President Bush underfunded it in his budget; the $4.8 billion extra he proposed spending in the next five years would not finance insurance even for all those who are currently being served.
But when the Senate Finance Committee proposed boosting the funding to $35 billion -- financed by a hefty hike in tobacco taxes -- Bush threatened a veto, and he raised the rhetorical stakes by claiming that the measure was a step toward "government health insurance."
That was surprising news to Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah, two staunch conservatives who had joined in sponsoring the Senate bill...
But rather than meet the president's unwise challenge with a strong bipartisan alternative, the House Democratic leadership decided to raise the partisan stakes even higher by bringing out a $50 billion bill that not only would expand SCHIP but would also curtail the private Medicare benefit delivery system that Bush favors.
To add insult to injury, House Democratic leaders then took a leaf from the old Republican playbook and brought the swollen bill to the floor with minimal time for debate and denied Republicans any opportunity to offer amendments.
The result was undisguised fury -- and some really ugly exchanges on the floor. ... In the end, the House bill passed on a near-party-line vote, 225 to 204, far short of the margin that would be needed to override the promised Bush veto. ...
No rational human being could explain why a program that both parties support and both want to continue could ignite such a fight. But that is Washington in this era of polarized politics. ... [W]hat the public has seen and heard is mainly the ugly sound of partisan warfare. ...
[W]hen this Congress had an opportunity to take a relatively simple, incremental step to extend health insurance to a vulnerable group, the members managed to make a mess of it.
It's no wonder the approval ratings of Congress are so dismal.
Broder says "No rational human being could explain why a program that both parties support and both want to continue could ignite such a fight." The premise of this statement - that both sides want this program to continue - is false. Being unwilling to kill a program because of the political consequences is not the same a supporting it, and many Republicans believe this is a step towards federalization of health care, something they oppose. Recall that President Bush doesn't believe access to care is a problem for children anyway, “After all, you just go to an emergency room,” and he's promised to veto any expansion of Schip on “philosophical” grounds. Under that umbrella, i.e. knowing that a veto is coming, it's easy for Republican members of Congress to appear bipartisan and supportive of expansion of care for children for the political advantage it gives them, but in the end, there will be enough votes to sustain the veto. In any case, I think it's time to rerun this:
On Being Partisan, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: American politics is ugly these days, and many people wish things were different. ... If all goes well, we’ll eventually have a new era of bipartisanship — but that will be the end of the story, not the beginning. ...
You see, the nastiness of modern American politics isn’t the result of a random outbreak of bad manners. It’s a symptom of deeper factors — mainly the growing polarization of our economy. And history says that we’ll see a return to bipartisanship only if and when that economic polarization is reversed.
After all, American politics has been nasty in the past. Before the New Deal, America was a nation with a vast gap between the rich and everyone else, and this gap was reflected in a sharp political divide. The Republican Party, in effect, represented the interests of the economic elite, and the Democratic Party, in an often confused way, represented the populist alternative. ...
[T]he G.O.P.’s advantage in money, and the superior organization that money bought, usually allowed it to dominate national politics. ... Then came the New Deal. I urge ... everyone ... who thinks that good will alone is enough to change the tone of our politics — to read the speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt...
F.D.R. faced fierce opposition as he created ... Social Security, unemployment insurance, more progressive taxation and beyond ... that helped alleviate inequality. And he didn’t shy away from confrontation.
“We had to struggle,” he declared in 1936, “with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. ... Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”
It was only after F.D.R. had created a more equal society, and the old class warriors of the G.O.P. were replaced by “modern Republicans” who accepted the New Deal, that bipartisanship began to prevail.
The history of the last few decades has basically been the story of the New Deal in reverse. Income inequality has returned to levels not seen since the pre-New Deal era, and so have political divisions in Congress as the Republicans have moved right, once again becoming the party of the economic elite. The signature domestic policy initiatives of the Bush administration have been attempts to undo F.D.R.’s legacy... And a bitter partisan gap has opened up between the G.O.P. and Democrats, who have tried to defend that legacy.
What about the smear campaigns, like Karl Rove’s...? Well, they’re reminiscent of the vicious anti-Catholic propaganda used to defeat Al Smith in 1928: smear tactics are what a well-organized, well-financed party with a fundamentally unpopular domestic agenda uses to change the subject.
So am I calling for partisanship for its own sake? Certainly not. By all means pass legislation, if you can, with plenty of votes from the other party: the Social Security Act of 1935 received 77 Republican votes in the House, about the same as the number of Republicans who recently voted for a minimum wage increase.
But politicians who try to push forward the elements of a new New Deal, especially universal health care, are sure to face the hatred of a large bloc on the right — and they should welcome that hatred, not fear it.