The mysteries of bipartisan shtick

By John Frary | Mar 09, 2010

"It's time to put an end to these partisan political games and get back to work." — Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director.

This statement could just as well have been made by a communications director in a Republican administration. Partisanship, in the narrowest sense, is single-minded commitment to the power and interests of a particular party. Partisans of one party inevitably accuse members of the opposing party of partisanship because they oppose the power and interests of their own party.

These accusations are routine because the public doesn't like partisanship. It's a useful, if hackneyed, tactic and the youngest among us will not live long enough to see it abandoned.

Since we are going to have to suffer it forever and ever, we might as well examine it. "Partisan" is a demon-word, a word that most people find distasteful. It's never used in a positive sense. "Bipartisan" is an angel-word. It is never used in a critical way.

The trouble with all such words is that they are thought-stoppers. The one is bad. The other's good. Further thought becomes redundant.

So let's give them some thought.

The nation's founders despised and feared partisanship. When Washington warned against "factionalism" he was thinking of the Roman factiones, the Optimates and Populares, who tore the Roman Republic apart in civil wars and destroyed themselves, leading to a military dictatorship in which both factions disappeared. The Constitution says nothing about parties. Its writers hoped they would never appear. But they did in the first generation and they will remain as long as we have elections.

Pure, unadulterated partisanship involves putting the welfare of the party above the welfare of the nation. In its simplest form it works like this: The Republican leadership knows full well that Rep. Jake Tiddlypush has an I.Q. that can be rolled on a pair of dice, has great difficulty in keeping his fly zipped in the presence of young women and can't recognize the difference between a principle and a push-pin. Nevertheless they will back him for re-election because he polls well in his district and follows orders. The same applies to the Democratic leadership.

Bipartisanship means putting the nation's welfare above the party's. In ideal form, this means a party's leadership rejects unfit candidates regardless of their electabilty. This almost never happens. I might say "never happens," but I'm being cautious here.

I'm not saying that politicians never think of the nation's welfare, but I am saying that calls for bipartisanship are suspect and invariably contain some element of calculation and even hypocrisy.

Sen. Olympia Snowe can hardly speak or write a complete paragraph without using the word "bipartisan." It's her shtick. Yet she is listed as Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and never as Sen. Olympia Snowe, BiP-Maine. When she talks Republican to a Republican audience, she has much to say about "Republican" values. When she talks to the general public she talks only of bipartisanship.

I remember a public statement once when she spoke of a "group of bipartisan senators." Of course, there's no such thing. Everyone in the group of which she spoke was either a Democrat or a Republican. What she meant was a "bipartisan group" which was defying the leadership of both parties on a particular issue.

I'm not saying that bipartisanship is an impossibility, or that politicians of both parties invariably put party above nation. But I am saying that the word is used deceptively far, far more often than it is used sincerely.

Professor John Frary of Farmington is a former congressional candidate and a retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia. He can be reached at: jfrary8070@aol.com.

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