Monday, January 21, 2008

More on Bipartisanship, Obama, and Shifting Alliances

I've been arguing for quite awhile that Obama's view of bipartisanship is what I call "principled bipartisanship," in which he seeks common policy goals with individual Republicans and independents and then works with them to arrive at a workable policy solution. Hilzoy today has an excellent (as usual) post that starts out as an explanation of why Hillary is a poor vehicle for advancing Dem Party values (a term that I personally find meaningles, but which Hilzoy uses more to mean "left of center" values). But it ends up as a stirring defense of Obama's bipartisanship.

Hilzoy, referring to an old post of hers, hits on the central point that I've been talking about:

Obama tries to find people, both Democrats and Republicans, who actually care about a particular issue enough to try to get the policy right, and then he works with them. This does not involve compromising on principle. It does, however, involve preferring getting legislation passed to having a spectacular battle.

As evidence, she cites Obama's work with Tom Coburn on ethics reforms, and Richard Lugar on nuclear non-proliferation. The point of this all is that Obama - both rhetorically and in practice - views the American political system as a competition among shifting interest groups. He does not accept, in principle, the belief that membership in a political party means that all members of that political party accept the party line on every issue.

Thus, to Obama, what is important is finding a working majority on the given issue, while also leaving open the possibility of creating working majorities on future issues. So rather than steamroll a plan that has the specifics that he proposes, he seeks out individuals who share the same goals as he does on the topic. He then works with them to create a proposal that will actually achieve their common goal. What he is doing is in effect removing himself from pu-pu platter partisanship, and making the only relevant partisanship whether he can find people with the same policy goal on a given issue.

Since that particular goal is all that is relevant at a given moment, appeasing party interest groups on the details of the solution is less important. And so the final policy result manages to reflect an actual policy preference more than interest group horse trading or the policy preferences of the most influential group in the Dem Party on the given issue. Put another way, the policy that gets implemented represents a meaningful policy rather than simply the intra-party Dem compromise that seeks to appease all Dem Part interest groups (who often are at odds with each other on various issues; see for instance the Dem Party's championing of ethanol, which is mostly ineffective on environmental issues but manages to appease constituent farmers' groups and unions while still being sufficiently "green" to keep the environmentalists on board).

Not only is Obama building a working majority on issues where he actually can find enough members on either side of the aisle to do so, he is also generating goodwill amongst those new allies. He implicitly understands that there will be issues in which he is in the minority. But by building coalitions on specific issues rather than on all issues simultaneously (ie, "pu-pu platter" partisanship), Obama is ensuring that he will get a say in those issues as well, provided that the goals of policy are broadly "liberal." (In the classical sense).

As I've said before, his political acumen shows a deep understanding of Madisonian views on faction.