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The Partisan Path to Bipartisanship

As Jon Cohn writes in this week's New Republic, there have been plenty of moments for bipartisan compromise. The Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act, which most Republicans never embraced and a bunch of the early co-sponsors have now abandoned. The Bipartisan Policy Center's bill, which was endorsed by two former Republican Senate leaders and zero current Republican senators. And though Cohn doesn't mention this, the current "Gang of Six" process was really a tremendous opportunity for bipartisanship: The president let it wreck his August schedule and drag out through the recess all in the hopes that Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi and Olympia Snowe would sign onto something.

But it all failed. I've heard that the only reason some Republican senators remain interested in any deal -- if indeed they're actually interested -- is that they fear the budget reconciliation process means Democrats can pass something with or without them, and they worry what it will look like without them. The partisanship, in other words, would actually be worse in the absence of the reconciliation threat, which is just the opposite of what the GOP foretold. The lesson of this process has been that the only path to bipartisanship -- if one in fact exists -- is effective partisanship. The minority party won't cut a deal that hands the majority party a win. But they might cut a deal if they know they'll otherwise lose.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 4, 2009; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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The reason that repiglicans don't cut a deal is that there is no upside for them personally, even if reform is good for the country. They are transparently cravenly looking out for their own political skins and screwing the rest of the country...Killing reform damages the dems, so they are going for it, even if it means going back on 40 years of opposing medicare, for example.

Posted by: srw3 | September 4, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely. But this requires the Dems to GO ALL THE WAY TO RECONCILIATION before seriously compromising. They (Congress as well as the WH) seem to be falling all over themselves to compromise well before they have to, and that defeats the strategy. Why can't they call teh GOPers' bluff and go to reconciliation? It really is a game of chicken, but the Dems want to blink before they start their engines.

That makes me think they don't really want serious reform, and that depresses me greatly. I'm getting really afraid of a bill that delivers the middle third (or 20-60%) to the insurance company jackals with inadequate subsidies,m no real reform, and no public option. That is worse than nothing.

Posted by: Mimikatz | September 4, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse


I'd suggest that this also points out the leadership issue with Obama. While he's talked about bipartisanship in high-level terms, he not once, IIRC, pointed to Wyden-Bennett or Dole-Daschle, and highlighted that these types of approaches should be the focus. He actually hasn't been interested in leading on bipartisanship, bur rather simply hoping that it happens. He could have still left the details to Congress, while generating greating attention for a bispartisan bill like either of those.

Posted by: wisewon | September 4, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

This sounds like classic game theory. But of course!

Posted by: TheIncidentalEconomist | September 4, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

The problem is that all these attempts at 'Bi-partisanship' since the establishment of the Concord Coalition have had the same form: gather a couple of retired senior Republicans from the Center Right plus Budget Hawk Democats (for Concord this was Rudman and Tsongas, for the Bi-partisan Policy Center Dole, Baker, Daschle, Mitchell for Health Care the Gang of Six) and proceed to your first agenda item.

Which is "Do we simply adopt the Peter G Peterson framework of declaring the New Deal Dead? or first just Declare it Punch a Hippy Day? or maybe Bash a Progressive Week?"

It really never fails. If you take a look at the Bi-Partisan Policy Center's Health Care Plan you notice two things: not much emphasis on universality, no suggestion that a Public Option can be part of the mix.

Same thing with the Gang of Six, their first positive declaration was that the HELP Bill was dead and that they would start from the ground up. And while Concord talks a good game on 'fiscal responsibility' in practice they never seem to advocate solutions including defense cuts or tax increases on the wealthy, EVERY time they get specific the focus is on Social Security and Medicare.

It is not that people like Mitchell and Daschle of the Bi-Partisan Policy Center are at heart illiberal, they just don't see that their partners on the other side define 'Bi-partisanship' as 'any solution that would disappoint FDR'.

This is pretty transparent, overt signals from the White House that attacks on Blue Dogs from the Left are unwelcome and that the fundamental problem in the 'Left of the Left' is really an attack on the principles underlying the New Deal and the Great Society.

How do Progressives have an honest debate with Republicans and a handful of Blue Dog Dems who non-negotiable starting position is ABFDR (Anything But FDR)? Well you don't. It is time to start fighting for that little old concept called 'majority rules'

Posted by: BruceWebb | September 4, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

It's amazing how many professional politicians act like they're so thoroughly ignorant of basic political theory or, indeed, elementary negotiation tactics.

You're more likely to get what you want if you highball your offer, and you're more likely to get a good compromise if your opponent sees you as a formidable opponent. Why do these idiots keep acting like being weak and conciliatory gets results?

Posted by: NS12345 | September 4, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

This sounds like a Game Theory problem to me.

Posted by: ideallydc | September 4, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

*You're more likely to get what you want if you highball your offer, and you're more likely to get a good compromise if your opponent sees you as a formidable opponent.*

Democratic senators see their Republican colleagues as friends. When you want to organize something with your friends, you tell them what you want, listen to what they want, and agree to something that works for both of you. Republicans view their Democratic colleagues (and even the legislature itself) as an adversary: the two sides have radically different interests, and fulfilling your interests means extracting concessions from an adversary, concessions which hurt the adversary's interests. Now, I wouldn't be friends with someone who tried to maximize his "gains" in any sort of interaction by giving me a list of demands and forcing me to negotiate from there. At the same time, when I walk into a car dealership or a middle eastern bazaar, I don't have any delusion that the salesman is my "friend." Instead we start from the premise of trying to maximize our respective interests and work from there. This would be a more honest relationship than legislators across the aisle trying to pretend that they are friends.

Posted by: constans | September 4, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

The comment from wisewon above (at 12:38 PM) goes hand-in hand with his comment on a previous post today. There's a rhetorical-slash-administrative element missing.

That may be purposeful, though. Many details (tough details) have seen the light of day over the past weeks and months, making it easier to predict how the public at large will react to any message.

Posted by: rmgregory | September 4, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

"Many details (tough details) have seen the light of day over the past weeks and months, making it easier to predict how the public at large will react to any message."

Maybe, maybe not.

As Ezra rightfully noted in a number of posts weeks back, there isn't much in this current round of reform for the 93% of the voting electorate that already has insurance. In other words, while Wyden-Bennett was riskier in some ways, it offered a very simple and clear value proposition to everyone-- get your employers out of the business of choosing your health insurance. Put choice in your hands, not your bosses'. This may or may not have worked, but Obama's alternative approach of incremental reform that doesn't offer much to folks, coupled with a public option and a $1 trillion price tag for the uninsured, feels a lot different politically than Wyden-Bennett. The latter would have required presidential leadership, the desire to take some risks, and fully embracing a solution that didn't fully align with his liberal base.

Posted by: wisewon | September 4, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

*The latter would have required presidential leadership, the desire to take some risks, and fully embracing a solution that didn't fully align with his liberal base.*

Both would require a lot of presidential leadership. Wyden-Bennet would have actually disrupted the coverage of the currently insured. The current reform merely requires opponents to dishonestly *claim* it will disrupt their coverage. Obama just figured the current path was a safer one, incorrectly figuring that people would be ok with a system that didn't change their own situation but offered something to people without insurance or who were insecure about their insurance situation. That was not an unreasonable assumption

Posted by: constans | September 4, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Although I can't look into hearts.. All but three of these folks signed a Washington Post article a month ago? Might fortunes change with Presidential leadership. Is the preservation of Medicare as we know it and lower premiums really a tough sell. Try the American people before asking Congress.

Sen. Ron Wyden [D-OR] show cosponsors (14)

Ron Wyden is a Democratic senator from Oregon. Robert F. Bennett is a Republican senator from Utah. The other authors of this op-ed, and co-sponsors of the Healthy Americans Act, are Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Michael D. Crapo (R-Idaho), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

Posted by: DougHuffman | September 4, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

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