LONDON – Bipartisanship seems to have taken a drubbing in Washington since President Barack Obama got to the White House.
Like most recent American presidents, Obama campaigned on a promise to work with his political opponents for the greater good of the country.
Bill Clinton said much the same thing before he was elected, and then spent his first term in a knockdown fight with Newt Gingrich’s Republican majority in Congress, and his second term fighting off impeachment.
George W. Bush also said that he would reach out to those who disagreed with him. He then turned into the most partisan and ideological president of modern times, egged on by his vice-president, Dick Cheney.
Obama already appears to have gone further in the pursuit of bipartisanship than his predecessors. His selection of Republicans for key posts – including retaining Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense – has raised a few eyebrows among his supporters.
But, above all, he has tried hard to secure Republican support for his efforts to prevent the economy from disappearing into a deep recessionary hole.
Only three maverick Republican Senators went along with Obama’s proposals to get the plan accepted. And in the House of Representatives, the Republicans unanimously rejected every amendment, every compromise, and every courtesy that he offered. Some commentators suggest that Obama made a bad mistake.
First, he promised bipartisanship, but got heavily rebuffed.
Second, he and his administration were so busy trying to build consensus that they watered down some of the vital ingredients of the stimulus package, and failed to defend it robustly from Republican attack.
There may sometimes be a downside in trying to woo your opponents. When they are plainly wrong, why let them off the hook?
Here we have had Republicans criticizing an increase in America’s budget deficit after doubling America’s national debt in the Bush presidency’s eight years.
Moreover, Republicans’ belief that only tax cuts, not public spending, will delivery recovery is a sad example of blinkered ideology.
But there are more positive reasons for Obama effort at bipartisanship. In any democratic system of checks and balances, leaders usually require coalitions in order to get what they want done.
Moreover, a consensual style is good politics. Most voters – certainly swing voters, who usually decide elections – do not like partisan battles as much as some politicians and their supporters do.
After all, the wise, the moderate, and the floating voter do not switch on the radio to listen to archconservatives like the American broadcaster Rush Limbaugh.
When things get tough in politics, as will happen in most of the world as we struggle with the impact of the global recession, every sensible government will try to hang on to the benefit of doubt.
It is the most important attribute in politics. Citizens know that running a country, especially in a time like this, is tough.
They are prepared to spare governments from too much criticism, if they think they are trying to do what is right for everyone. They bridle at a government that must do unpopular things and that also looks narrow and mean-spirited.
There is also a lot to be said for making political argument more civil. Ronald Reagan had a strong ideological bent. He reshaped American politics, pulling the center firmly to the right. But he did so without ever seeming to despise his opponents or disparage their intentions.
Obama’s aides have confessed that he modeled his own election program on the sunny and optimistic decency of the Republican actor.
Civility in politics is not simply political confectionery. A leader who respects his or her opponents is more likely to earn respect himself than one who doubts their patriotism and resents their criticism.
One reason for the widespread respect felt for Nelson Mandela is that years of imprisonment did not embitter him. Jawaharlal Nehru was hugely popular because he was known to cherish free speech, take seriously the views of his critics, and defend their right to disagree with him.
His role in establishing enduring democracy in India, despite the tensions of caste, ethnicity, religion, and regional loyalties, made him one of the towering figures of the twentieth century.
So my own hope is that Obama will not be dissuaded from trying to work with his opponents, to build consensus, and to deal courteously even with those whose views he may thoroughly dislike.
Personally, I do not think that those whose philosophy deplores the whole idea of government, except when it is required to bail out businesses or banks, and who purport to offer a better future by stitching together the shreds and tatters of policies that helped produce today’s economic disaster, will have much respect or support from voters. Even in Washington, there is not much to be said for being partisan, unpopular, and wrong.
Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.