Bipartisanship is overrated


Every time I see TV pundits discussing politics and lamenting how one of the parties is obstructing the other’s “progress,” I have to wonder whether they are shills for the blocked party or merely naive children. Our system was designed purposely to be slow in making change, with one side blocking the other when government is divided among divergent views.

Of course “progress” is so much easier when the House, Senate and White House all belong to one party, as they have the last two years. But progress is relative to your views, and those who share mine would like to unravel all this Democrat machine has accomplished as they shoved Republicans aside and steamrolled legislation like Obamacare.

I hope you notice that the news media has taken up the pleas for bipartisanship only now that the Democrats lost the November election and will be the minority in the House with a thin majority in the Senate. Funny how Democrats mean “give up your principles while we keep ours” when they utter the word bipartisanship.

Last week both parties claimed victory in a “bipartisan” deal on extending the Bush tax cuts, but that doesn’t mean the agreement was forged without rancor. The Democrats asked wherever there was an open microphone, “How can Republicans say they are dedicated to deficit reduction while they support a tax cut for the richest few Americans that will cost $60 billion?”

Democrats even mentioning deficits is high comedy, and citizens keeping their own money is not a cost to the government. Besides, they were asking the wrong question.

Here’s a better question. Why did Democrats champion a middle class tax cut and demonize wealthier Americans while Republicans wanted tax cuts for everyone?

The simple answer is because there are far more middle class voters than wealthy ones, which is also why the middle class tax cut will “cost” $120 billion, twice as much as continuing the tax cut for the wealthy, but we hardly ever heard that on the news.

While Democrats pandered for middle class votes, Republicans insisted on tax cuts for everyone, and we did hear a lot about them taking the middle class “hostage.”

With two years in charge of the three legislative authorities, Democrats could have easily decided this issue far earlier instead of waiting for a lame-duck Congress at the eleventh hour.

By postponing, the Democrats exacerbated the uncertainty dragging on our economy, perhaps assuming the automatic tax increase trigger might absolve them of blame, but of course I’m trying to read minds I do not understand.

If I am right, this issue is a good example of the devious way we humans, whether Democrat or Republican, act in the interest of the cause we believe in at the expense of others.

You can easily tell on which side my partisan interests lie. But even if you are on the other side, is a powerful and efficient government machine really a good idea?

I sometimes wonder at the insight and fear of human nature that led our founding fathers to design our inefficient government machine. The irony is how they fought with each other in ways that underscored the very demons they feared most in too much power focused in one individual, how they themselves were slowed down when factions disagreed.

Sometimes we forget that Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent Declaration of Independence in 1776 was just the beginning, that our independence was not won by war until seven years later in 1783, and that four more years of arguing and struggle would ensue before the first Constitutional Convention in 1787. These 11 years of formation were hardly an exercise in harmony.

Our first and somewhat reluctant president, George Washington, was the first to be frustrated at genuine disagreement, political intrigue and outright hostility as he tried to do the things he thought best, like keep America neutral and distant from Europe’s wars.

There were demonstrations in the streets in favor of supporting France’s war with the British, never mind fledgling America’s empty treasury, broken army and non-existent navy. It seemed no matter what issue President Washington decided, there was some faction to scream foul.

When Washington declined to serve a third term, the presidential election of 1796 was a dirty campaign. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been friends since before 1776, though they didn’t always agree, and they were opponents in the election.

In keeping with the personal dignity of the times, Adams didn’t participate in any campaign — others did it for him — while Jefferson was actively scheming and controlling the opposition to Adams in the shadows, with deniability behind the scenes.

While Adams was abrasive but straightforward, Jefferson was more indirect, crafty and devious, a master wordsmith. Jefferson paid unscrupulous newspaper columnists (unlike me of course) to print the most egregious false accusations against Adams: Adams was mentally defective and indecisive, Adams planned a monarchy, Adams planned for his son, Quincy, to succeed him, and so on, none of it true.

Adams was a Federalist, as was Washington, a party organized by Alexander Hamilton that wanted a national bank, fiscal strength and a strong federal government. The Federalists preferred Hamilton as their presidential candidate because Adams was independent, unpredictable and uncontrollable, but he had the strongest revolutionary credentials and would draw the heaviest vote.

Jefferson and his protege, James Madison, organized the Republican Party in opposition to the Federalists, fearing a strong federal government and advocating state powers. Adams narrowly won the election and, as was the practice at the time, Jefferson as the runnerup became Adams’ Vice President.

You might think that brought them together, but the Federalists and Republicans each regarded the other as an enemy, traitors to the spirit of the revolution. Jefferson and Madison ran the Republican opposition, a righteous cause in their view, from the office of Vice President, undermining everything Adams tried to do as president, including a propaganda campaign in sympathetic newspapers. There were rifts even within the parties: Adams mistrusted Hamilton at first, then learned to loathe him.

The Federalists, in reaction to Republican propaganda, pushed through Congress the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, making unlawful, among other things, “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials.

Adams claimed to be opposed to these new laws, and he might have been in theory, but he signed them, the biggest mistake of his career. These restrictive laws, intended by the Federalists to combat Republican tactics, made even opposing speech on the floor of Congress a risky endeavor.

They were, fortunately, not used very much and expired at the end of Adams’ presidency, having backfired on the Federalists from their blatant political purpose.

Jefferson would go on to defeat Adams in his 1800 re-election bid. Ironically, Jefferson again surreptitiously used the services of a scandalmonger named James Callendar, but then refused to pay him. In retribution, Callendar published what is today believed to be true, that Jefferson had a romantic liaison with one of his slaves, named Sally Hemmings.

You might wonder what point I am making with all this political ugliness.

Even the people we hold in highest regard are only human, with passions and weaknesses that induce them to act in the interest of their cause. It is human nature to seek to advance our own righteous agenda at the expense of others.

Even George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, each having expressed the fear of too much power vested in one individual, found reason as president to lament the limitations on their power, to wish the opposition that slowed down progress could be shoved aside.

Partisanship opposition is uncomfortable, time-consuming and irritating, and to you it might be deliverance or destruction, depending on where you stand on the issue. Compromise is part of political life, but we should take great care when regretting political opposition and wishing for bipartisanship, a sharp sword that cuts on two sides.

[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City. His email is]