Monday, March 16, 2009

Obama on Obama

Genuine bipartisanship assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficits. This in turn assumes that the majority will be constrained -- by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate -- to negotiate in good faith.

If these conditions do not hold -- if nobody outside Washington is really paying attention to the substance of the bill, if the true costs . . . are buried in phony accounting and understated by a trillion dollars or so -- the majority party can begin every negotiation by asking for 100% of what it wants, go on to concede 10%, and then accuse any member of the minority party who fails to support this 'compromise' of being 'obstructionist.'

For the minority party in such circumstances, 'bipartisanship' comes to mean getting chronically steamrolled, although individual senators may enjoy certain political rewards by consistently going along with the majority and hence gaining a reputation for being 'moderate' or 'centrist.'

From Audacity of Hope.  Not that I'm complaining--the party in power should be free to do whatever it wants, and this circus of obstructing nominees and fillibustering every bill is ridiculous.  But so is the notion that the specific sort of change that Obama would usher in would be one of calm-headed bipartisanship; one of empirical competence.  This has always been a rhetorically shunt to mask genuine liberaldom.  

See Johanathan Chait's plea that liberals support big government because the evidence is there, and conservatives are just willfully malignant.  But, as Ross Douthat points out, empirical facts cannot be separated from a broader ideological framework.  A pledge of unity and competence is even more hollow than one of change and hope because the very idea of coming to a objective consensus on all political issues in nonsense in a democratic system.  This is why we don't have a single party regime; because political actors are not broad-minded technocrats (fighting against some especially mean-spirited opponents who reject reason and embrace fear), but narrow, political actors whom we can elect or not based on demonstrated political beliefs.  

Deploying numbers and facts in such an apparently non-ideological manner has become the standard procedure for any interest group.  Once upon a time, we relied on rhetoricians in the field of political debate, and a well-constructed argument or a witty turn of phrase could decide an argument.  Now, economists and data crunchers are deployed by rival gangs to settle disputes under the pretence that some sort of categorical issue is being decided.  That the only thing standing between our common fights and disagreements is a scientific judgement.  Well, that's wrong.  People are always going to argue and complain, but we should recognize what our politics consists of, instead of playing politics with the apolitical.

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