Politics & Policy

The Trouble With Bipartisanship

Sometimes compromise equals defeat.

My apologies for not filing yesterday. Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from getting the column done. And no, it wasn’t because a bunch of kids from Cato knocked me out, rolled me up in a carpet and spirited me away to a dark theater where I was forced to watch Ayn Rand’s We The Living over and over again.

But fear not, I will avoid the temptation to respond to the eight zillion e-mails in response to Friday’s column on libertarianism. Instead, I’d like to offer a small olive branch of agreement with even the most glassy-eyed of my detractors (and in so doing promise to stop writing about this topic — directly — until the new year). Consider this an example of the vexatious issue of conservative “compromise” and its Republican little brother, “bipartisanship.”

Starting with the easier target, basically here’s how I see the issue of bipartisanship.

One of my favorite scenes from Stripes comes early, when Harold Ramis asks Bill Murray something along the lines of, “Can I have your last beer?”

Murray responds, “No.”

Ramis replies in that jovial, “have-I-got-a-deal-for-you!” tone: “We’ll split it!”

Well, that’s bipartisanship for you.

Or, say you don’t want to leave your house and your wife wants to go to California, bipartisanship is to move to Kansas City. Once there, you say, “I don’t like it here.” And your wife says, “Neither do I.”

You say, “Well, let’s go back.” She says, “What!? Go back? We’ve already packed everything up and moved out of our house; let’s go all the way to California, we’ve come this far already.”

This is called “building on past bipartisan successes.”

Or … You’re sitting fat, dumb, and happy in your lazyboy chair and your dog comes up to you with his rope toy and says, “Let’s play tug of war!” and you say, “No.”

He barks at you. You say “No” again. He flings the rope toy around like Sid Blumenthal with a small bush pig (albeit Sid can dislocate his jaw for large prey). You yell, “No!”

Dejected, your canine sulks and whines as he looks over his shoulder one more time, expectantly. Your heart melts a bit, but you stand firm and say one more time: “No.”

He walks away.

One minute later, he comes back with a slobbered-up sock and says, “Okay, let’s play tug of war with this!”

This is called “negotiating in the spirit of bipartisanship.”

Bipartisanship As Surrender

All politicians must make a deal with the Monty Halls across the aisle from time to time. The problem from a principled conservative (and libertarian) perspective is that on some issues compromise equals defeat. If I say two plus two is four and you say two plus two is eight, it’s not a partial victory for me when we agree that two plus two is six.

This is especially so for a party that is ostensibly enamored with the free market. If you believe that the government shouldn’t regulate the sale of widgets and your opposition wants to nationalize the widget industry, it’s no great victory for the free market if you settle on widget price controls and widget consumer subsidies.

This dynamic will be the subject of ever greater amounts of conversation and consternation in the coming months, as George W. Bush tacks ever more wildly between the Reaganite ideal and the Nixonian muddle in response to poll numbers and the Democratic Senate (Two writers typically ahead of the curve on this point are Ramesh Ponnuru in the excellent, but un-webbed, cover story of the current NR OnDeadTree and Paul Gigot in his column last week).

Still, the phenomenon of Republicans surrendering to Democrats like French generals to German Boy Scouts has been a common gripe since, at least, when Eisenhower ratified the New Deal. In fact, the history of the Goldwaterite takeover of the Republican party is really just the history of this unfolding realization on the Right. That’s why Goldwater ran on the promise of “A choice, not an echo,” and hardliners have railed against “me-too Republicans” for decades.

The criticism highlighted the two-steps-forward-one-step-back growth of the welfare state. The Democrats would announce that their “concern” for the poor forced them to propose, say, a thousand-dollar check to every tenement dweller. The GOP would say, “me too” on caring for the poor but the James Jeffords crowd also insisted that we be “fiscally responsible,” and therefore we could only afford a $500 check to the needy as a “down payment.” As Poppa Bush said at his inaugural, these Republicans had “more will than wallet.”

But the problem was that the surrender had already taken place. As Churchill might say, we established that the poor were wards of the state; now we were just haggling over the price. This underlines the fundamental challenge of compromise for Republicans. If the Republicans are only good for compromising on the ultimate goals of Democrats, then Republicans aren’t very useful. However, if Republicans are forcing Dems to come round to conservative goals — by introducing market mechanisms to health care, Social Security, or education, for example, or by carving out room for religion in public life — then Republicans are an engine for progress.

The Conservative’s Achilles’ Heel

And it’s that idea of “progress” which raises the thornier issue of compromise for conservatives. The critique from liberals and libertarians alike is that conservatives are too “enamored with existing evils,” i.e., the status quo. Often it’s a fair critique and sometimes it’s simply an accurate description.

In an essay with a slightly misleading title, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” Friedrich Hayek expanded upon “the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such.” He wrote that conservatism:

by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

In a narrow sense Hayek was wrong, in that we are not on the Road to Serfdom that he described half a century ago. But he was right about the fundamental “tug of war” between conservatives and what he called progressives (and we call liberals). In a sense the same “spirit of bipartisanship” characterizing Republican-Democrat squabbles — and negotiations with my dog — also infects the debate between the Left and the Right.

But there’s a hitch; call it technology. Liberalism, it turns out, gets pulled in a direction not of its own choosing, too. The Left has been forced to change its own position as much as conservatives have, in part because of the inconvenient fact that technology (brought to you by the free market) keeps making poor people live better than Marxist theory and left-wing pessimism say they can. Hardcore conservatives and liberals both have legitimate reasons to grumble about the automobile. It radically dismantled traditional communities and it put roads and oil derricks in places that obstruct the views of very rich subscribers to the Nation.

This phenomenon is why, in part, Whittaker Chambers wouldn’t call himself a conservative, preferring the label “Man of the Right.” He believed that society changed according to its own internal, organic logic and that the best we could hope for was to make the best of those changes (he called this the “Beaconsfield position” after Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister and Earl of Beaconsfield).

For example, the rhetoric about the traditional family farmer notwithstanding, if we relied solely on these folks instead of vast, impersonal agri-businesses, millions if not billions of humans would have starved over the last few decades. Complaining about the loss of the family farm is fine if it’s a recognition that something special has been lost. But complaints aimed in the hopes of returning to the days of yesteryear, when millions or hundreds of thousands of small nuclear families grew the crops for everybody else, are nothing more than nostalgia-driven buffoonery.

The charge that conservatives and Republicans are too fond of the status quo is ultimately unfair because Republicans (at least the kind I like) do not like the status quo for much the same reason the libertarians don’t like it. The government is too big, too parental, too meddlesome. The Republican agenda is to change that. Whether that change should take the form of reducing the size and ambitions of government to those of 1970, 1950, or 1820 is a subject worthy of considerable debate. C.S. Lewis once noted that if you come to a fork in the road and you walk a mile down the wrong path the only real progress is not to keeping walking “forward” but to double-back and take the right road.

As for the conservatives, well, Hayek’s criticism is correct; we do get pulled in a direction not of our own choosing, just like everyone else. The question of whether this is a devastating critique depends on your own outlook. If you are a utopian leftist or a utopian libertarian pushing on one end of the seesaw or the other — for total government control or for total individual freedom — such a criticism probably is devastating. For people who have an end destination in mind, direction is everything.

But if you don’t have an end goal in mind — if you are happy to play offense and defense — if you are open to the idea that sometimes government has no role (in the market) and sometimes it has a crucial role (in fighting wars, punishing criminals, and, yes, issuing currency), then Hayek’s “decisive objection” is merely an incisive caution.

“Utopia” was a word first minted by Sir Thomas More in 1516. It has come to mean the ideal society, the perfect arrangement where all people are happy. As we all know, the road to Utopia is littered with bodies piled high. Some people believe Utopia has a strong centralized government, and others believe it has none at all. And that’s fine. But people forget More’s joke. He came up with the word “utopia” by combing the Greek words for “no” and “place.” He contrasted this with “eutopia,” which means, funnily enough, “the good place.” Not great, not perfect, not ideal. And the Right is big enough for eutopians of all parties.


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