The Myth of Bipartisanship

Bipartisanship isn’t good when the options are bad.

What America considers a debate is pretty messed up. Apparently, the existence of climate change is a “debate.” Allowing 33,000 Americans to die every year because they can’t afford health care is a “debate.” Continuing to arm ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria is a “debate.”

And yet, there’s one singular issue that seems to read “case closed” in the minds of millions of Americans, both red and blue: bipartisanship. Somehow, we have wound up in a world where saying “we should stop literally arming terrorists” is an opinion, but lauding the glories of bipartisan politics is unbiased and impartial.

But bipartisanship is not a good thing by definition, especially in today’s political system. See, it’s good to compromise when it comes to something like this:

Here, both of the proposals are good, so the compromise between them is also good.

That’s what most Americans think of when they picture compromise and bipartisanship. But in terms of the political system in America today, it looks a bit more like this:

That’s actually the middleground between the Democrats’ health care plan (ACA) and the Republicans’ health care proposal (BCRA). Both the options are shitty, and hence the compromise is also shitty.

What a beautiful, bipartisan compromise! I’m so glad both parties can work together!

Now, I’m not giving compromise and bipartisanship an entirely fair shake. There are some areas where both Democrats and Republicans can find legitimate common ground — veterans benefits, for instance (at least in theory).

But for the most part, compromises between Democrats and Republicans are consistently right wing.

In practice, compromise between Democrats and Republicans is not this:

But rather this ominous circle of neoconservative doom:

The spectrum has shifted so far to the right that both parties are incompatible with the progressive vision. The case of Barack Obama and the Republican Establishment is a perfect example.

Both the Democratic and Republican Party establishments hold consistently right wing outlooks, and hence the “compromise” between the two of them isn’t all too pretty for actual progressives.


The Venn Diagram of Bipartisanship

The Democratic ideal of bipartisanship can be best explained with a Venn Diagram. The ideal among more “moderate” Democrats is that there are policies that are both (a) conservative enough to get Republican support, and (b) liberal enough to like. For partisan Democrats, the center of this Venn Diagram — the meeting ground between “a” and “b” — is the essence of a good, bipartisan compromise.

However, as we’ll soon learn, the center of this Venn Diagram doesn’t exist in modern American politics.

To discover this, we need to look no further than the Obama Administration, often touted as the pillar of successful bipartisanship. Let’s break down some of Obama’s major policies one by one in terms of this Venn Diagram.

Column “A”, but not Column “B”

Many of Obama’s actions as president were conservative enough for Republicans to support, but not liberal enough for progressives to like. Here are a few examples:

  • Wall Street bailout. Wall Street bankers committed fraud and destroyed the world’s economy — and Obama gave them a multi-trillion dollar bailout, much of which was used to fund seven-figure bonuses for the bankers whose fraudulent practices caused the recession in the first place. Supported by both parties? Yes. But liberal? Not by any means.
  • Renewal of the Patriot Act. In his first term, Obama signed the PATRIOT Sunsets Extensions Act of 2011, which reauthorized the draconian, 4th Amendment-breaching Patriot Act for an additional four years. The law, which passed 98–1 in 2001, is surely “conservative enough for Republicans to support,” but no progressive in their right mind would classify such an expansion of mass surveillance as “liberal enough to like.”
  • Extended Bush tax cuts. Obama’s extension of the Bush-era tax cuts was surely a bipartisan move, so much so that it was dubbed the “Obama-GOP Tax Deal.” But although his tax cuts on the middle class were reasonably progressive, his extended tax cuts for the top one percent of earners weren’t.
  • Charter school expansion. Obama advanced a largely conservative effort on the education front, appointing Arne Duncan (a known school privatizer) as Secretary of Education and advancing the Race to the Top program (which expanded federal funding for Charter schools). These pro-privatization policies were met largely with bipartisan support, but in no way were they progressive.
  • Free trade. Obama signed deregulatory free trade deals left and right with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama, all the while pushing for the TPP, a disastrous trade deal dubbed “NAFTA on steroids.” These deals were supported by Bush and most of the Republican Party (along with many Democrats), but can be categorized under Obama’s neoliberal legacy — not his progressive one.

Column “B”, but not Column “A”

Fortunately for progressives, there were a handful of left-leaning bills, orders, and agreements that Obama enacted as president. In practically every case, however, these policies didn’t pass because they had bipartisan support, but rather because the Democrats had a majority in Congress or Obama had the executive authority to implement them. Here are some examples:

  • The Iran Deal. The Iran Deal was a quite progressive agreement. By lifting sanctions on Iran, we were able to calm tensions and stunt Iran’s nuclear buildup. According to the Wall Street Journal, however, literally zero GOP senators supported the deal.
  • The Cuba Deal. Ending our trade and travel embargo with Cuba was a monumental step in normalizing relations with a country whose faults are miles less despicable than those of some of our closest allies. But even though the deal led to Cuba’s legalization of small and medium-sized businesses — something that should spark a twinkle in the GOP’s eye — it was heavily despised by the Republican establishment.
  • The Paris Agreement. Our 44th president, a man who invested $34 billion in dirty energy and received nearly $1,000,000 from big oil for his 2008 campaign, was no angel on climate change. However, signing onto the Paris Agreement (as well as the milquetoast but better-than-nothing Clean Power Plan) was a step in the right direction. As anyone following American politics knows, 0f course, Trump and the GOP have stopped at nothing to withdraw from the agreement.
  • Banning offshore drilling in certain areas. Although it came too late and contradicted Obama’s long history of opening up new offshore drilling zones, this was surely one of Obama’s most progressive environmental moves. However, as this was an executive order, it didn’t require any Republican support from Congress to be enacted (nor did it get any).
  • Rejecting Keystone and DAPL. Although Obama approved many oil pipelines and it took him too long to reject DAPL, these moves were both good and important. To no surprise, this was a major blow to the GOP and their oil industry donors.
  • DACA. As president, Obama heavily expanded border patrol and set the record for immigrant removals, making his immigration record a “mixed bag” at best. However, his signing of DACA was a strong step in the right direction, preventing hundreds of thousands of deportations. As would be expected, DACA was vehemently opposed by most Republicans, who voted 212–11 to defund it (although their efforts never came to fruition).
  • Overtime Rules. Obama more than doubled the maximum salary allowed to be eligible for overtime pay from $23,660 to $50,440. Quite upsettingly, this effort was opposed by Republicans and ultimately struck down by a federal judge.
  • Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Obama’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 was a strong stand against homophobia in the armed forces. However, it was met with 35 “nays” and just 4 “yeas” from Republicans in the senate when it came time to vote.
  • Freeing non-violent drug offenders. Although he failed to legalize marijuana, Obama did use his executive authority to commute the sentences of over 1,000 non-violent drug offenders. These pardons were strongly opposed by most Republicans who aren’t named Rand Paul.
  • Stimulus Package. The Stimulus Package wasn’t all that liberal, but the economy could have plunged even deeper into recession were it not for this boost. Again, though, vote counts show how partisan this vital decision really was — 38 Republican senators voted “nay,” with just Susan Collins voting “yea.”

Neither “A” nor “B”

Some of what Obama did was neither liberal nor supported by the Republican Party. This attests to how off the chart the GOP is in their extreme neoconservatism — the fact the Republican Party even denied some of Obama’s most conservative measures outlines the dogmatic conservatism of Congressional Republicans, another reason that bipartisanship is a lost cause. Here are some instances of conservative Obama-era policies that weren’t approved of by the Republicans:

  • Obamacare. Despite Obamacare’s conservative lean, the ACA got zero Republican votes in the House (0 yea, 178 nay) and zero Republican votes in the Senate (0 yea, 39 nay). Obamacare passed, but it wasn’t because it was bipartisan — it passed because the Democrats had a near-supermajority in Congress. The notion that Obamacare is liberal enough for progressives to like isn’t true either. The ACA was modeled after a health care philosophy endorsed by Mitt Romney and the right wing Heritage Foundation, and its individual mandate entrenched us in a private health care market, abandoning advocates for Single Payer.
  • Military Expansion. In just eight years, President Obama increased our covert usage of predator drones tenfold, never ended the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and intervened in three new countries. He signed a $1 trillion plan to renovate our nuclear weapons, signed numerous weapons deals with the Saudis, and empowered terrorists in Libya and Syria. However, even this neoconservative pipe dream wasn’t enough for the GOP to wet themselves. Instead, Obama was attacked by the conservative wing as “soft on terrorism,” reaffirming how far the American political spectrum has shifted to the right.
  • Dodd Frank. Many would somewhat accurately classify the Dodd Frank consumer protection act as “liberal.” But given that (a) Obama had a near supermajority when it was signed, and (b) we were just coming off one of the biggest economic recessions in U.S. history, Obama surely could have pushed for a stronger regulatory act like Glass Steagall. Instead, he signed a bill that did little to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts and whose Volcker Rule failed to sufficiently clamp down on the reckless speculation of taxpayer dollars by the banks. Still, Dodd Frank was almost unanimously opposed by the GOP in both the House and the Senate.
  • Gitmo. Under the guise of “Republican obstruction,” Obama himself was a largely neoconservative force on the Guantanamo Bay front. Obama signed executive orders that eroded habeas corpus and “all but [cemented]” our role in Guantanamo. While he may have supported the eventual closure of the extrajudicial Cuban facility, he did so under the stipulation that the detainees would simply be transferred to domestic facilities like “Gitmo North” in Illinois — all the while perpetuating our system of indefinite detention without trial. But even despite his conservative tendencies on this issue, he was still criticized by the GOP for the few repatriations he conducted.

Both “A” and “B” — The Phantom Center

So, what falls in the “center” for Obama’s legacy? What did Obama do that was successfully bipartisan — both conservative enough to win Republican votes and liberal enough to appease progressives?

This section of the Venn Diagram is going to be the shortest of the four, because the answer to this question takes up just one word: nothing. Go down the list of Obama’s policies, and none of them fill in the center of the Venn Diagram. It’s a phantom center, a myth.

The Republican Party is so far off their rockers that they’ll accept nothing that isn’t purely conservative and theocratic. Even the House GOP’s original proposal for axing Medicaid as a huge tax cut for the rich wasn’t conservative enough for some Republicans.

This is why the “Neither ‘A’ nor ‘B’” column above was so extensive: even some of Obama’s most conservative measures as president were insufficiently far right for the likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
This is why “compromises” like a $12 minimum wage that “appeal to Republicans” are almost entirely delusional; the Republican Party simply won’t accept anything north of $7.25. In fact, Republicans are currently lowering the minimum wage in several states.

The failure of the Republican Party to support anything with even a tinge of progressivism attests to one conclusion: bending over backwards for bipartisanship with the GOP is a lost cause for the Democrats.

But fortunately, there is a solution. There is an actual way to achieve progressive policies, even in such a divided, right-leaning country.

The Solution

The Democratic Party has two options. It can run to the left, or it can run to the right.

As can be seen above, when the Democrats run to the right with candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the geographical center between Democrats and Republicans (the purple dot) is promptly skewed towards the authoritarian right.

However, when we run true progressives like Berniecrats or Justice Democrat candidates, the middle-ground between Republicans and Democrats — the purple dot — is pushed towards the libertarian left.

This is compromise 101. If you get an offer of $50 for a painting and you ask for $60 instead, you may come away with a solid $55. If you go the “moderate” route and raise to $51 instead, you’re missing out on a potential four dollars.

Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk takes it even one step further: “In the U.S., it makes sense to support candidates who are more liberal than you, because that person is not gonna get everything that they want and everything that they ask for…If the person is to the left of you and a fighter, well then the middleground where we get the compromise, where we get the legislation, might be actually be just standard progressive stuff that we like.”

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

This isn’t rocket science: a further left starting point yields further left policies, even under the conditions of compromise (note the movement of the purple dot above). This is a main reason that Europe leans further to the left than the United States: it has more progressive voices in the room.

This seems like a no brainer, but a main argument of Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters is that running to the right is the true way to “get things done.” If she means conservative things, then surely yes. But in the long run, running to the left yields more progressive results. (Surely, not every proposal from FDR came to pass, but his presidency was undoubtedly miles more progressive than that of Bill Clinton).

The rebuttal that corporate Democrats will make to this is that, even though center-right Democrats may be less liberal than actual progressives in Congress, at least they’ll actually get into Congress (in other words, running to the right helps you win). But any objective analysis of recent elections will clearly indicate otherwise.

Jeremy Corbyn’s progressive Labour Party is currently polling well ahead of the Tories, and Bernie Sanders is still the most popular politician in America. Meanwhile, this April, a Kansas Berniecrat came within seven points of winning a deep-red district that regularly went to Republicans by over 30 points. In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton lost the election to one of the most beatable candidates in electoral history, center-right Democrat Jon Ossoff lost big in a winnable Georgia district, and miraculously, the Democratic Party has a lower approval rating than Donald Trump. It’s not our opinion that running to the right is a terrible strategy for the Democrats. It’s the statistical consensus.

In short, the bipartisan Democratic approach tends to result in less progressive policies and a lower chance of winning elections. If you are a liberal in any sense, it should be as plain as the nose on your face that effective progressive bipartisanship is a myth in today’s political system.

The path forward for the Democratic Party is not to run to the right. The solution is to fight unabashedly for truly progressive values, for the sake of future victories and for the sake of humanity.