The Green Papers Commentary

Why Bipartisanship broke down
over the Economic Stimulus

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff

The President is personally responsible for his acts, not indeed to Congress, but to the people, by whom he is chosen... He cannot avoid responsibility by alleging the advice of his ministers, for he need not follow it, and they are bound to obey him or retire...

This, however strange it may seem to a European, is a necessary consequence of the fact that the President, and by consequence his Cabinet, do not derive their authority from Congress... The President, unless of course he is convinced that the nation has changed its mind since it elected him, is morally bound to follow out the policy which he professed as a candidate, and which the majority of the nation must be held in electing him to have approved. Where that policy is, however, opposed to the views of the majority of Congress, they are right to check him as far as they can. He is right to follow out his own views and principles in spite of them so far as the Constitution and the funds at his disposal permit. A deadlock may follow; but deadlocks may happen under any system, except that of an omnipotent sovereign, be he a man or an assembly, the risk of deadlocks being indeed the price the nation pays for the safeguard of constitutional checks.--
James [later Viscount] Bryce, THE AMERICAN COMMONWEALTH [1888]

Thusly had Viscount Bryce- still speaking to us today through the mists of Time- so well, where not also succinctly, indicated the very source of that so-called "political gridlock" against which President Obama's campaign mantra of 'Change' was mainly brought! Indeed, that very gridlock has seemingly been broken-- but only because Obama's own Party's numbers in both houses of Congress (along with that Party's relative support of the President's first major policy initiative- the Economic Stimulus that he is signing into law on the very day I am typing this) have been enough to have now done so.

In response to this fact, conservative pundits have already been decrying what at least some of them have deemed to have been inherent insincerity within President Obama's calls for Bipartisanship upon first taking office... in reality, however, this is all so much putting the cart before the horse- where not also the pot calling the kettle black! And the very key to fully understanding the basic truth of what I have just written is within that which I have quoted from Bryce above.

Take that "Big Sky Country" known as the State of Montana, for example: what are we to discern from how the People of that constituent and sovereign State of these United States had voted this past November?

'We the People' elected Barack Obama to be the 44th President of our United States of America: even Senator John McCain, Obama's erstwhile principal competitor for the White House, acknowledged- in his Concession back on Election Night itself- that "the American People have spoken and they have spoken loudly"... but Montana's People would rather have had Senator McCain as their President and, instead, gave that State's Electors to the Arizonan through the Will of the plurality of that State's voters. Yet they also re-elected Democrat Max Baucus to the United States Senate; at the same time, however, they re-elected Republican Denny Rehberg (pronounced "REE-berg", by the way) as their sole (Montana having only one) Representative in Congress (meaning, of course, the U.S. House of Representatives).

So did/does the electorate of the State of Montana support President Obama's policy views or not? Clearly, a look at the Election Returns from this past 4 November alone won't be able to tell you. And the reason for this is that the American voter is forced, by the very nature of the constitutional system, to have something of a split personality when it comes to Politics (even though, as I will point out shortly, most such voters usually don't seem to realize this).

This is, indeed, altogether different from what one generally finds within the systems of Parliamentary Government that predominate amongst the World's Democracies (and it was to those back then familiar with such Parliamentary Democracy that Bryce was writing now nearly a century and a quarter ago- hence his own comment about all this seeming strange to a European). Take the most recent British General Election- that of 5 May 2005- for example:

Let's say one was, in that General Election, a supporter of Labour in a constituency that elected a Conservative Member of Parliament: well, in this scenario, you lost the battle (insofar as who represents your own space upon that sceptr'd isle is concerned) but you won the war (for Tony Blair's Administration got a third go-round, a situation still being administered by Blair's successor, Prime Minister Gordon Brown)... but, of course, the British voter ever has only a single vote to cast- that for his/her MP: a vote that not only determines (or not) his/her elected representative but also, through aggregation, which Party- and who as Prime Minister- gets to rule Great Britain for the duration.

But, of course, that is not at all the case on this side of the "Pond"!

Here, in America, we the electorate cast a number of votes (depending, of course, on which Offices are up for election at the time)- even as regards the same level of governance! Again, simply look at Montana and its relationship to the Federal Government alone-- as already noted: on 4 November 2008, Montanans voted for President, U.S. Senator and Congressman-- but, whether they knew it or not, they did not vote for each and every such office as either Americans or Montanans! Instead, while they were voting for President in their respective capacities as United States citizens, they were voting for Senator as citizens of the State of Montana (a Senator being, in essence, an elected "Ambassador"- as it were- from a sovereign State of the American Union) and they were voting for Congressman as, again, United States citizens-- but only (as was the case with all who cast votes for members of the U.S. House of Representatives all across the Nation that day) as residents of their Congressional District, which in Montana happens to encompass the entire State!

Put another way: Senator Baucus is, at least in theory, responsible to the People of his State in their capacity as Montanans, while Congressman Rehberg is, likewise, responsible to the People of that same State (but only because the State happens to be coterminous with his District) in their capacity as Americans; and President Obama is responsible to all Americans- including Montanans, even though the majority of its voters rejected his presidential candidacy in favor of that of Senator McCain... but, I dare say, most American voters- whether Montanans or no- don't at all look at things this way (indeed, to most Americans, their United States Senators are- more or less- two extra Congressmen ["SuperCongressmen", if you will] ) and I would think that Senator Baucus tries to do what he deems to be his utmost for America while, at the same time, fairly representing Montana and Congressman Rehberg is acting no less as a representative of Montana in the House than Senator Baucus is in the other chamber of Congress.

Hence the "mixed message" within the bare results of the General Election Returns from Montana per se as regards the most recent Federal Elections!

So why bring this all up? Because it so well illustrates the dynamics that, in and of themselves, made President Obama's overtures towards Bipartisanship- sincere though they may be- difficult, where not even impossible (and also goes a long way to allowing the reader to see why conservative Republicans blaming Obama for this is merely so much "avoiding looking towards the mirror as one walks by it").

For it is the Republican Party that is primarily responsible for the failure of Bipartisanship so early in Obama's Administration... and, by the way, there is nothing at all wrong with this (note well that I am not criticizing the GOP for taking the position of what, in Parliamentary Democracies, would be called "the Loyal Opposition"-- I am merely blaming many supporters of the GOP out there in "OpinionLand"- as well as more than a few Republican politicians- for trying so hard to pretend the Republican Party is not doing this [or, at least, well trying to sell the proverbial "bill of goods" that the GOP is being forced to do so by the Democrats in general and President Obama in particular], which is all a load of abject bunkum!).

The Republican Party of the United States, as an institution, has made an understandable political calculation that the only way for the Party to begin to climb out of the electoral hole they now find themselves in as a result of the two most recent Federal Elections- those of 2006 and 2008- is to posit itself as a viable alternative to President Obama and the Democrats in future elections and this can only be done by the GOP retaining more than a little "plausible deniability" when it comes to Obama's policies. It's all very simple, really: should Obama's policies be seen to be working (or, at least, well on their way towards working) to pull this Nation out from the morass- economic and otherwise- in which we now find ourselves come the Federal Midterm Elections of November 2010, the Republicans are likely going to take a third hit at the polls in any event... put another way: there is really no political incentive for the GOP to be all that cooperative, for they will gain little credit should Obama succeed (Democratic campaigns would trumpet such success as being despite Republican support, rather than because of it).

On the other hand, what if Obama's policies aren't working-- or at least aren't working fast enough in the opinion of the American People now less than two years from now? The Republicans- as, at least as of this typing, the only other Major Party (the failures of so-called "Third Parties" here in America to make inroads in this regard, by the way, is- despite their consistent whining about "ballot access discrimination" [which is actually a valid argument largely rendered hollow, however, by the rather evident incompetence of their own respective leadership cadres]- are, for the most part, their own)- would, by very definition, have to be the Party offering a different set of policy options in the next Federal Elections and they can't well be doing so if a healthy chunk of their own Party's elected officials have so linked themselves too closely to Obama's policies.

Again, we can turn to the long-ago words of Bryce: The President... is morally bound to follow out the policy which he professed as a candidate, and which the majority of the nation must be held in electing him to have approved. Where that policy is, however, opposed to the views of the majority of Congress, they are right to check him as far as they can.

Put most bluntly: the Republicans do not- as a Party- have that majority, of either house of Congress and, therefore, the GOP cannot check President Obama; their only hope of being able to do so, perhaps as early as the next [112th] Congress, is to be both loyal and in opposition!

Note well, gentle reader, that I earlier wrote that "it is the Republican Party that is primarily responsible for the failure of Bipartisanship so early in Obama's Administration"... but please note as well that I did not write that the GOP is solely responsible for this failure.. for a secondary (but, yes, it is secondary) responsibility must be placed upon those who, right now, can "check [the President] as far as they can"- meaning, of course, those majorities in Congress made up of members of President Obama's own Party: the Democrats.

Essentially, the Democratic majority- moreso in the U.S. House of Representatives than in the United States Senate, however- did their own level best to throw Bipartisanship under the proverbial "bus", especially with the original form of the Economic Stimulus passed by the House that was later modified in the upper chamber (though, for the reasons already stated, it could never be made politically palatable to the vast majority of Republicans in either house). The Democrats have done so for two simple reasons- one being that, given the Political Party Breakdown in Congress, they can... but the other reason is in that very "split political personality" of the American polity of which I wrote earlier in this piece (hence, as is the case with what the opposition GOP is now doing, there is nothing inherently wrong with this [the only "wrong" here is in the "preaching to the choir" that one is not at all doing it!]):

The U.S. House of Representatives is, indeed, that proverbial "hot cup of coffee"- the chief repository of those "political passions of the People"- which is then poured into the "saucer" that is the United States Senate to "cool". Thus, the House is almost always more to the Left or the Right, depending on the electoral results, of center than the Senate generally tends to be: for instance, when the 'Contract for America' Republicans of Newt Gingrich won their resounding victory in the Midterm Federal Elections of 1994, the resultant Senate was never so conservative as the House and, in at least some part as a result, this "Revolution of '94" did not then well translate into the GOP preventing then-President Bill Clinton from winning a second term a mere two years later (indeed, the hard-core 'Contract' Republicans of the lower chamber ended up doing rather much to ensure that a Republican could not so easily win the White House in 1996-- and then continued to do same well into Clinton's second term [with the result that, even with the controversial victory of Republican George W. Bush in 2000, the once-Republican Senate- in that very same Election- became an out-and-out 50/50 tie]). Much in the same way, the Democrats swept back into control of the House in 2006- and kept in said control in '08- have tended to be notably more liberal than the likewise-Democratic Party-controlled Senate of this same era and they acted accordingly-- with the expected results when it came to the concept of potential Bipartisanship (as in "no such thing"!).

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, President Obama- again, to quote Viscount Bryce- is right to follow out his own views and principles in spite of them so far as the Constitution and the funds at his disposal permit.

Or, perhaps the President- in a sense echoing Bryce- might well paraphrase himself re: what he said when the current Economic Crisis first broke "big time" this past September and Senator McCain threatened to scuttle the first Presidential Debate in order to try and help get the original Financial Bailout (the so-called "TARP") passed:

'members of both houses of Congress- of both Parties- have to pursue their policy objectives and I've got to pursue mine'

For the President is going to have to face all of this over and over again with the new Financial Institution Rescue Plan... and the Housing Market Rescue Plan... and the Automobile Industry Reorganization Plan... and...


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