Published February 19, 2010
The resignation of Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana has sparked a debate about bipartisanship, ideology, and the institution of Congress. According to Bayh, “There is much too much partisanship and not enough progress, too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous national challenge, the people's business is not getting done.”
This critique is like catnip to the media and has unleashed a predictable wave of sympathetic coverage. Let's examine these arguments, however, beginning with the assertion that “the people's business is not being done.”
Actually, the people's business is getting done. In this case, “the people's business” was to stop ObamaCare, which the public opposes in significant numbers (the spread between those who oppose ObamaCare and those who support it is 15-20 percentage points). Most Americans think the Democratic health care plans are badly flawed and a majority of them want Congress to begin over again.
The dominant narrative manifests a particular cast of mind, one that equates “the people's business” with passing legislation that increases the size, cost, and reach of government. In fact, sometimes the people's business involves stopping bad ideas from becoming law.
It's worth recalling that the Founders set up a system of government with what James Madison called the “auxiliary precautions” of American government — meaning the separation of powers, bicameralism, and other checks and balances. Madison, who was shipped what he called a “literary cargo” of books on history and politics by Thomas Jefferson, rigorously studied the historical record of past governments. Out of that study Madison and his colleagues decided to put the emphasis on braking mechanisms, which they thought would help preserve liberty by limiting the power of government.
Then there is Bayh's attack on “ideology.” Ideology can imply embracing a doctrine that is abstract and rigid, one that is anti-empirical and ignores experience. That is a problem. But ideology can also be another word for convictions — and one person's “ideologue” is another person's principled politician. A persistent criticism of both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was that they were “ideologues.” In fact, they were people who took seriously a coherent set of ideas. It isn't terribly helpful to go on a rant against “ideology” without saying specifically which ideas and principles one is attacking. What matters are the quality of those ideas. Arguably what we need more of in Congress are people who take ideas and political principles seriously — who grapple with them, who understand them, and who are willing to fight passionately for the right ones.
Finally, there is the common complaint that we're not seeing enough “bipartisanship” between the two major political parties. Let's stipulate that all of us would like to see more bipartisanship for the ideas we support. If, on the other hand, we disagree with the ideas being championed by the party in power, we applaud “principled opposition.” The fixation on bipartisanship is fixation on process rather than substance. The question always needs to be asked: Bipartisanship for what end? For example, should champions of civil rights legislation in the 1960s have been more “bipartisan” if it would have led to legislation that was less just? Should Ronald Reagan have given up his commitment to a strategic defense initiative, or George W. Bush his commitment to the surge in Iraq, in order to win the favor of their critics? Should Lincoln have reached a bipartisan accommodation with Stephen Douglas on the doctrine of “popular sovereignty”?
Many of the greatest political figures in American history — whether we're talking about Reagan or Roosevelt, Lincoln or King, Jefferson or Hamilton — are recognized for substance rather than process, for their commitment to American ideals rather than bipartisanship, for what they did rather than the manner in which they did it.
We should be clear about what's going on here. A Democratic president, with strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, was on the cusp of passing a massive change in our health care system. It stalled because of strong public opposition. This failure has created an existential crisis among much of the political class. And so it is said that America is “ungovernable,” that the public is stupid, that Republicans are nihilists, that Congress is broken, that the filibuster is evil, and so forth and so on.
It's worth recalling that in 2005 George W. Bush made a big push to reform Social Security. I thought then, and think now, that his plan was wise and necessary. But it was also undeniably unpopular, and the effort failed. Its failure did not trigger the kind of Camus-like despair we are now seeing. No one in the commentariat argued that America was, in Joe Klein's phrase, a “nation of dodos” or that Social Security's failure could be laid at James Madison's feet.
We are not facing a governing crisis today. What we are seeing is an emerging crisis for modern liberalism. And the reason is fairly straightforward: the public, having been exposed to a liberal governing agenda for the last year, is repudiating it. Liberals cannot seem to accept that, so they are lashing out at everything else. It is unwarranted and somewhat childish; and it will only accelerate The Fall.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.