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Who Owns Bipartisanship?

There are many possible explanations for the now-resolved Barak Obama/John McCain dust-up, but election lawyer Bob Bauer here hits on the one that I think really matters in the long run: It’s all about preserving McCain’s unique and unprecedented role as the second most powerful force in American politics, which is based on his power to define bipartisanship.

 Bipartisanship works for Senator McCain, in lobbying reform as elsewhere:  it works politically, and helps him realize goals quite partisan in nature.

For Senator McCain to succeed in this effort, he must be able to distinguish the partisan from the bipartisan, and he has proposed to do so, with wide support from the press, on his own authority. This has been his aim in lobbying reform, and when frustrated in aims personally and-in this instance-politically important to him, it is his practice to assail, in vituperative terms and a righteous tone, those who contest his judgments.

That’s exactly right. It explains what was oddest in the underlying issue in the fight: Obama suggested taking lobbying reform legislation through the normal committee process, whereas McCain wanted to set up a bipartisan task force. For this, Obama is criticized as partisan. If the Democrats controlled Senate committees and were in the habit of rolling things through on party-line votes, that might be a legitimate charge. But in a Republican Senate, how could the committee process be more partisan, for Obama, than McCain’s?

It isn’t, of course. It just wouldn’t meet McCain’s definition of bipartisan.

In addition to Bauer’s point that McCain-branded bipartisanship "helps him realize goals quite partisan in nature," it should be noted that McCain-branded bipartisanship is a corollary of one-party control of Congress. The two phenomena are completely interdependent. Ordinary bipartisanship in either House is a product in short supply, and McCain has effectively monopolized what there is of it. And to the extent that, with support from the press, he is empowered "to distinguish the partisan from the bipartisan," he controls that resource, and the credibility that comes with it, to his own ends.

Think about it: Since the actually bipartisan achievement of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, there have been mostly two ways to put together winning coalitions in Congress -- the DeLay way (Republican-written, with Democrats invited to come along but given no voice) and the McCain way (Campaign Finance Reform, the torture amendment). McCain has been almost a safety valve for the inherent impulse toward bipartisanship or the occasional desire to challenge Bush. But he has control of exactly how far it goes, and uses that control to position himself exactly where he needs to be on the scale between independence and sufficient loyalty to win over the GOP base. For example, when Bush adds his legendary "never-mind" signing statement to the torture amendment, no reaction really matters other than McCain’s. If he complains but shrugs, it’s automatically okay.

But if the power of the DeLay system were to break down -- as I believe it is beginning to -- then there would be more outlets for bipartisanship. If other Republicans were willing to break ranks occasionally and stay broken, then there would be multiple ways to put together winning coalitions in Congress -- which is the usual state of affairs. If there were a real possibility that Obama and others could work through the Government Affairs Committee process, working with Senators Collins, Voinovich and Chafee, then McCain would have less power to set the terms, either of acceptable reform or acceptable bipartisanship.

I respect McCain, but as a conservative well suited to the Senate seat he took over from Barry Goldwater, not as some kind of transcendent figure beyond all party and all ideology. I wish most conservatives were like him. And I also think, based on my own experience in government, that forming bipartisan coalitions in which legislators of different viewpoints work together to solve problems is a healthier way to govern the country than the anomalous system of one-party rule or asymmetrical partisanship of the last five years, and usually it’s the only way. McCain has attained a strange kind of power that will, ironically, disappear when there are other outlets for actual bipartisanship. And that’s what I think he’s raging against. It’s nothing personal.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 9, 2006 | Permalink


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Mark, you need to change your link to your tpmcafe.com posts.

Posted by: David Weman | Feb 9, 2006 2:29:20 AM

Respecting John McCain...one thing, at least bothers me. Considering what the Bushies did to him in the Carolinas in 2000, how in the world can he suck up to them? Sure, he wants to be President but how can he ignore the the vile whispering campaign?

Posted by: Barry | Feb 9, 2006 8:33:58 AM

For example, when Bush adds his legendary "never-mind" signing statement to the torture amendment, no reaction really matters other than McCain’s. If he complains but shrugs, it’s automatically okay.

Is that a hypothetical, or is this how knowledgeable people like you are interpreting McCain's stance on the torture amendment? I'd read McCain has promised close oversight to make sure the amendment is obeyed.

Posted by: Thomas Nephew | Feb 9, 2006 1:05:58 PM

This seems of a piece with your thesis.

Posted by: rilkefan | Feb 9, 2006 3:28:38 PM

The other alternative is that McCain is trying to position himself for 2008. One theory that fits a lot of his behavior is that, in the end, he really wants to be president. When that appetite is raging, he'll go along with pretty much anything, ethics and morals be d*mned.

Posted by: Barry | Feb 9, 2006 3:47:21 PM

When I first heard about the dust-up, I immediately thought that McCain is trying to make the most charismatic, moderate member of the Senate look bad. I doubt Obama will run for president in 2008, but he's still a political threat. McCain may be nominally moderate, but he's definitely weak in the charm department.

Posted by: Erika | Feb 11, 2006 4:55:26 AM

As is so often the case, I am in agreement with Schmitt's analysis. Re Barry's point about McCain's presidential ambitions: a common thread is the goal to gain and preserve power. As stated by Schmitt, the mantle of bipartisanship confers power on McCain by making him the go-to guy. The possibility that McCain he might be a major candidate (and get the nomination) attracts attention and press, and therefore power. Therefore I don't think the presidency is only one goal, the more general one being power at any level.

On a tangent, I think this is why Hillary Clinton does not dissuade speculation about her presidential prospects. Whether or not this is what she wants, staying mum on the topic generates more press.

Posted by: Sam Wang | Feb 11, 2006 9:21:49 AM

A compelling analysis. Thanks.

Posted by: Hank | Feb 13, 2006 10:02:29 PM

I think McCain's just a prima donna who was upset that Obama didn’t endorse his particular vision of reform. Something along the lines of “I’m the only one who’s allowed to lead reform efforts around here, and if you don’t get on board, then you’re obviously a partisan unconcerned with what’s Best for America™, as defined by me, Senator John McCain, Scion of Independent Thinkers Everywhere®.”

He needs to stop taking himself so seriously.

Posted by: Ben | Feb 14, 2006 11:27:42 AM

I do not dispute your analysis of McCain, but I don't agree that he will be a major force in 2008. His fence riding (aka: bi-partisanship) suggests his lack of commitment to certain conservative principles that are essential to carry the republican vote. He is, in my estimation, more of a liberal than a conservative. He would have more traction running as a democrat. I have great admiration for McCain but I would never vote for him as president. The nation is being watered down enough by the socialist-democrat movement without conservatives helping.

Posted by: Spamster | Feb 15, 2006 1:47:22 AM

"The Bush cult." If you aren't 100% in agreement with George Bush, you are a liberal.

That makes about 75% of the country liberal?

Glenn Greenwald blogs about this Bush cult a lot.

Is this a new phenomenon in American politics?

Posted by: Anne | Feb 15, 2006 9:39:42 PM

Of course, the Bush cultist I was referring to was Spamster, not Mark.

Glenn Greenwald really gets into it today, describing the Bush cultists' total disregard of facts, the glorifying of the faux macho/manly Bush, the hatred of Arabs, etc.

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