Bipartisanship has limits

To the Editor:

Sen. Brian Langley’s (R-Hancock County) impassioned complaint, in these pages a few weeks ago, that Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has no counterpart Democrat willing to work across the aisle is easily rebutted. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has voted against environmental rules related to coal mining and earned an “A” from the NRA for his votes on gun control. Democratic senators in oil- and gas-producing states have tended to vote against the Obama-era cap-and-trade climate bills, and those from Western states are likely to defend weaker environmental grazing requirements on public lands.

Nonetheless, the most striking willingness to compromise in recent years has been at the top of the Democratic ticket. No president has been more willing to compromise than was Barack Obama. That may sound complimentary, but how, when and on what issues to compromise makes all the difference.

In the early days of his presidency, Obama faced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Some administration economists advised him privately to propose a stimulus package in the $2 trillion range. He rejected that advice in the hope that a figure under a trillion would attract some moderate Republicans. In addition, he accepted other revisions, including tax cuts, always a favorite of Republicans. He pursued these compromises even as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged his colleagues to do anything in their power to assure the failure of the new administration.

Obama’s efforts did convince Republican Sens. Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter to vote for the bill. The House, however, was a different story, and one that would set the tone for the rest of Obama’s presidency. “Most striking was the stonewall of Republican opposition in the House, even after huge job losses in January,” Politico wrote at the time. “Republican aides had predicted … that 10 to 20 party moderates could join in supporting the bill. But the grassroots pressure from conservatives has been immense, raising fears of Republican primary challenges. The result appears to be a hardening of positions.”

Now, these several years later, that judgment has been borne out. No Republican senator voted for so-called Obamacare, which itself also had been scaled down to preserve the role of the insurance giants in a futile effort to win Republican votes.

No one knows what might have happened had Obama stuck with the larger and better-targeted stimulus package. He might have lost a few Democrats and thus been forced to revert to the more modest proposal. Nonetheless, at the very least, he could have employed his bully pulpit to highlight the limits of the stimulus package and thus make it more difficult to blame “government” for the troubles that were likely to follow.

The recovery from the world financial crisis bas been extraordinarily slow and leaves gaping inequality in its wake, an outcome predicted by some of Obama’s advisors. Nations in the euro area monetary union, whose fiscal powers are more legally and politically constrained, have endured even slower and more inequitable recoveries.

Langley’s piece does suggest an even more fundamental question: Is bipartisanship always good? There is more agreement between substantial factions of both parties on several key issues than is generally recognized. Bipartisan coalitions have ratified international trade treaties that undermined working class wages and rights. Similar coalitions have deregulated finance and thereby facilitated the risky behaviors that nearly destroyed the world economy. In the face of that crisis, coalitions across party lines then bailed out banks while leaving the bankers and their bonuses in place. Many in both parties share the fallacious assumption that our government can go broke or even is going broke. Inflation is nowhere in sight.

Historically, large deficits played a key role in our winning a World War and escaping the Great Depression. The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, financed by deficit spending, played a large role in protecting and beautifying Acadia National Park.

Perhaps the most shameful instance of bipartisanship is the role of Democratic Party leaders on national security and civil liberties issues. “Democrats most eager to preserve Trump’s spying powers as virtually limitless were the very same Democratic House [leaders] who have become media stars this year by flamboyantly denouncing Trump as a treasonous, lawless despot in front of every television camera they could find,” Glenn Greenwald wrote.

Corporate trade treaties, financial deregulation, national security and budget-balancing obsessions have left in their wake an angry and frightened working class. Many are all too susceptible to odious xenophobic and demonizing politics. Gridlock might be preferable.

John Buell

Southwest Harbor

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