Monday, April 29, 2013

Bipartisan political cooperation? Don't hold your breath

Most of us want bipartisan statesmanship, I know I do. But frankly it isn't fair to our politicians to expect it. Incentives drive behavior, and the incentives for cooperation generally aren't there. If you can accept that most politicians are rational human beings - admittedly a stretch in some cases - then we should expect party-centric behavior to remain the norm and inter-party teamwork to only be an occasional pleasant surprise.

Consider this from Ezra Klein:

"Elections really are zero-sum affairs. For one party to win, the other has to lose. The incentives this creates are stunningly dysfunctional. Imagine a workplace where the only way to win a promotion was for the boss to fire your colleague. Even worse, if he likes your colleague’s work, you get a pay cut. Now imagine that your colleague needs your help to finish a big, difficult project. Think you’re going to help him?"

This dichotomy of incentives is at the heart of why we see so little true bipartisan cooperation. Again from Klein:

"Bipartisanship is popular, and it typically redounds to the particular benefit of the president. But bipartisanship is, unusually, a precious political resource that the minority party has exclusive control over. It is entirely in their power to make even an accommodating president look like a polarizing figure who’s unable to work constructively with the minority party. And more to the point, it’s entirely in their interest."

Our first two presidents tried to warn us about the dangers of political parties. 

George Washington:

"However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."

John Adams:

"There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

Despite that, the mold for political parties was  cast during Washington's time in office due to the competing views of either favoring a strong central government (preferred by Alexander Hamilton) or granting power to the states (championed by Thomas Jefferson).

As an aside, with the advent of political parties came partisan and contentious media. In the early days of our government, newspapers tended to be voices for one party of the other, and the truth wasn't always the objective. There are even Founding Father roots of partisan media: Benjamin Franklin Bache, the great patriot's grandson, inherited his namesake's printing equipment and ultimately published a newspaper that was fiercely critical of Washington, Adams, and the Hamiltonian Federalists. Bache even suggested that Washington corroborated with the British during the Revolutionary War, and during Adams' tenure his journalistic activities led to his being arrested under the Constitutionally dubious Alien and Sedition Acts.

Let's fast forward to 2008. President Obama is making serious overtures to both parties for a new spirit of bipartisan collaboration.  According to Bob Woodward in "The Price of Politics":

"[Republican House minority leader Eric Cantor's chief of staff] Steven Stombres … was impressed. If this really was a bipartisan 'coming together' it was precisely what the country needed at such a critical time, and as a citizen he found it genuinely inspirational. As a Republican, though, he was worried: If Obama followed through on this promise of political togetherness, Republicans would be in bad shape.

He need not have worried - there were ample forces on both sides of the aisle to derail such an accomplishment.

It's easy to sit back and say that if we were in Washington we would act differently and be team players. But given the incentives that face our politicians, I'm not so sure. While one can justifiably question the extremes of political selfishness, as a general rule partisan behavior is quite rational.

Sources for this article:  

Woodward, Bob (2012-09-11). The Price of Politics (p. 9). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition

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