29 January 2008

Recovering from W's Address on "The State of the Union" (3) ~ What's the Problem With the Democrats?

I have explained a couple of times why I think "bi-partisanship" is a bad idea ~ a really bad idea. It is bad for democracy, which consists in competition. [1] [2] But let's put aside concern for the system. Let's think about winning. We have a president who has screwed things up most miserably across nearly every domain. And what are the Democrats preaching? Bi-partisanship. The Republicans, even from a position of incredible weakness, play hardball (see my earlier post). And the Democrats say 'Let's make nice,' 'Let's leave partisanship behind,' 'Let's work together,' and so forth. Here is Governor Sebelius (D-Kansas) offering the official Democratic "reply" to W last night:
“Good evening. I’m Kathleen Sebelius, governor of the state of Kansas, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you tonight. I’m a Democrat, but tonight it really doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as a Democrat or a Republican or an independent or none of the above.

Instead, the fact you’re tuning in this evening tells me each of you is, above all, an American first. You’re mothers and fathers, grandparents and grandchildren, working people and business owners, Americans all.

And the American people, folks like you and me, are not nearly as divided as our rancorous politics might suggest.

And the American people, folks like you and me, are not nearly as divided as our rancorous politics might suggest.

In fact right now, tonight, as the political pundits discuss the president’s speech, chances are they’ll obsess over the reactions of members of Congress: “How many times was the president interrupted by applause? Did Republicans stand? Did the Democrats sit?”

And the rest of us will roll our eyes and think, “What in the world does any of that have to do with me?”

And so I want to take a slight detour from tradition on this State of the Union night. In this time, normally reserved for a partisan response, I hope to offer something more: An American response. A national call to action on behalf of the struggling families in the heartland and across this great country. A wake-up call to Washington, on behalf of a new American majority, that time is running out on our opportunities to meet our challenges and solve our problems.”
Well, O.K., let's be clear. Competitive democratic politics does not imply "rancor," nor does it mean attending solely to the pundits or the applause-o-meter. Nor does it entail an inability to "compromise." Instead it focuses on who sets the agenda and thereby the terms of debate and eventual compromise. It therefore does demand partisanship in the sense of laying out competing policies, framed by competing principles (or competing interpretations of shared principles). It means doing so starkly and frankly. It does not mean being "bi-partisan" in this insipid way. It does not mean chanting "hope," "change," "transcend," and so forth as though the resulting mantra were meaningful.

That is the problem facing the Democrats. They now have two plausible candidates for president, neither of whom is staking out a plausible alternative to the Republicans. Hilary wants to be a Republican. Barak wants you to trust them, to pretend that the Republicans are not waiting there to stab him in the back given the first opportunity. Neither strategy is appealing.
Each commits us to continued war in Iraq and to dealing with domestic problems by redistributing from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy. Why is it that I feel ill?

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Blogger Dan said...

I think you may overstate the case against bipartisanship. Or, maybe more accurately, I think that claims of bipartisanship are sometimes (merely, strategically) rhetorical. The text of Sebelius's speech was quite partisan (admittedly, the party isn't exactly in a radical spot right now, so that isn't so hard). Sebelius tried to claim the center and ask the President (uselessly of course) to move to her spot.

I wonder to what extent Obama's bipartisanship is in the same vein. His platform is not so distinct from Edwards'.

Anyway, mostly I am commenting to say hello. I am very glad to have found your blog and look forward to your continued pessimism about the election!

~Dan Hirschman, one of your students this past summer.

30 January, 2008 17:06  

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