Extremism Is Not the Problem; Bipartisanship Is

This weekend op-ed from AEI’s Norman Ornstein and Brookings’s Thomas Mann has drawn a great deal of criticism, much of it arguing that, contra the authors’ claims, Democrats are as ideological, as extreme, and as unbending as congressional Republicans, and are at least equally to blame for the current sorry state of affairs in Washington, if not more so.

That argument has a great deal of truth to it: It was Democrats, not Republicans, who ensured that the recommendations of President Obama’s bipartisan deficit-reduction panel were D.O.A. It is Democrats in the Senate, not Republicans, who have refused to pass a budget since FY 2009’s. It was Democrats, not Republicans, who turned the confirmation process into a pageant of bare-knuckles politics (consult Robert Bork about that). It is Democrats, not Republicans, who insist that any plan to balance the budget take more than half of all federal spending off the table. Etc.

But while the authors focus on the allegedly extreme partisanship in Washington, anybody who has been watching our national descent into insolvency must conclude that the problem has been too much bipartisanship, not too little. For more than a decade now, the operating model in Congress has been that Democrats more or less support Republicans’ tax cuts (though sometimes howling about it for the benefit of their base) while in return Republicans support Democrats’ spending (also howling about it). That is the substance of the national suicide pact that Congress has signed us up for.

Divided government can sometimes have good results, as it did during the Gingrich– Clinton years, but it can also have bad ones. When the government is divided, or when the majority party holds only a very small majority in one of the houses, there are very powerful incentives to accede to the least painful of the other side’s demands. Democrats have been energetic in condemning the “Bush tax cuts” and blaming them for the high deficits currently afflicting us, but they have made no serious effort to repeal the bulk of them, because the majority of the tax cuts went to households earning less than $200,000 a year. In fact, Democrats have touted the payroll-tax  deal as a key domestic achievement, as though talking Republicans into supporting an irresponsible tax cut were one of the labors of Hercules.

The sins on the Republican side of the ledger have been too thoroughly documented to require much revisiting here, but the spending chart from 2001–09 tells the story. As Vero reminds us:

During his eight years in office, President Bush spent almost twice as much as his predecessor, President Clinton. Adjusted for inflation, in eight years, President Clinton increased the federal budget by 11 percent. In eight years, President Bush increased it by a whopping 104 percent. 

Republicans had a lot of things they wanted to get done from 2001–09, and the easiest way to keep things moving was by talking a great deal about spending without actually doing much of anything about it. Likewise, if we judge them by their actions rather than by the speeches they make, Democrats are broadly content to go along with a great deal of the Republican agenda on taxes. I’m sure that if they thought they could get away with it Democrats would raise the top rate to 90 percent, but they know they can’t, and the ones who take the time to look at the numbers know that it is the bottom two-thirds of U.S. taxpayers who are unusually lightly taxed, not the top third. But there isn’t much juice in running against the interests of the middle class, which is why Mitt Romney has embraced President Obama’s magical $200,000 mark as the AGI above which many tax cuts will not apply.

Those who complain that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the parties are mistaken — there are a great many dimes’ worth of difference between Paul Ryan’s vision and Barack Obama’s — but the day-to-day reality suggests that there is a bipartisan modus vivendi in Congress, and it is killing us.

It is particularly galling that Ornstein and Mann cite the passage of No Child Left Behind as a worthy example of Democrats behaving in a bipartisan fashion. NCLB is not an especially good piece of legislation; bad legislation that has bipartisan support still is bad legislation. (Those of us who are skeptical of the wonders of bipartisanship might be forgiven for applying the hairy eyeball to anything that had the backing of both George W. Bush and Teddy Kennedy. I would not trust a Bush-Kennedy accord on pizza toppings.) Sometimes good ideas have bipartisan support, and sometimes bad ones do. We’ve seen more of the latter than the former in recent years, and Republican accommodation of Democratic priorities on entitlements, domestic spending, and tax-code shenanigans would have left the country worse off, not better off. By all means, the Republicans should embrace good ideas when Democrats offer them. You know who else should support good ideas offered by Democrats? Democrats. But as Erskine Bowles and Alice Rivlin know, when it comes to the budget the best and most responsible Democrat-backed initiatives are dead on arrival in Nancy Pelosi’s caucus.


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