In Praise of Partisanship

I am about to ink a sentence for the ages that I have never written before. The likelihood of a recurrence of this phenomenon is equally slim. But on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, February 21, I agreed with Arianna Huffington. No, certainly not with every utterance that came from her lips. That would require more flexible philosophical gymnastics than I find myself capable of exhibiting. But nonetheless, Arianna did manage not only to make a true statement, but also a powerfully cogent one.

George Will, perhaps the greatest (if eloquence and common sense are the key ingredients that add up to such a legacy) living conservative columnist, was the original recipient of the question by the host, Terry Moran. Moran played a clip of Senator Evan Bayh’s retirement speech, where Bayh declared:

I’ve had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. 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.

Moran then asked Will if Bayh was right. Will responded, with characteristic gusto:

I don’t know quite what [Bayh’s] complaint is. But, Terry, with metronomic regularity, we go through these moments in Washington where we complain about the government being broken. These moments all have one thing in common. The left is having trouble enacting its agenda.

No one, when George W. Bush had trouble reforming Social Security, said, oh, that’s terrible; the government’s broken.

From Huffington’s body language, I could see that she was about to weigh in and I assumed she would take Will to task. But instead, a joyous surprise awaited as Arianna offered the following sentiments:

Well, actually, what we do with metronomic regulatory — I like that phrase — is complain about partisanship. That is one of the most ludicrous complaints. Every major milestone in American history has been won after a major, protracted and partisan battle. Go back to the Emancipation Proclamation, the 19th amendment, the New Deal, Medicare, Social Security, the Voting Rights Act. These were big partisan battles. One of them involved the Civil War. And so the idea that somehow we can all come to the middle and do what, free half the slaves, or free them from 12 to 5? You know, these are major issues that people have very definite differences on.

Excuse the employment of a far too overused Obama verbal prerequisite, but let me be clear. I find Arianna Huffington to be one of the most opportunistic, conniving figures in American politics in the last generation. However, I found myself dangerously hovering on the verge of developing a miniscule dash of fondness for her as I listened to her drive this point home. I was in good company; George Will interrupted her, mid-rant, to cheer her on with a “Hear, hear.”

Arianna Huffington certainly is on the wrong side of the healthcare battle, as she is on almost every other issue of the day. But I must grudgingly respect an opponent who, at the very least, understands that it is fallacy to choose to believe that all was sweetness and light in American politics until Ronald Reagan got elected…and then, when George Bush stole the election of 2000, the state of political discourse REALLY got nasty…and now, the bitter, racist gun-and-religion-clinging Tea Party crowd (“teabaggers”) won’t leave the Messianic Barack Obama alone. So Washington is just full of gridlock, to the extent that the government can get nothing done on behalf of the American people. Arianna Huffington may seem to flirt with unbridled fantasy at times, but at least, she isn’t THAT clueless.

In fact, partisanship not only runs deep in the DNA of the United States of America; it got a very early and noble start. There have never been nobler men who breathed air than our first four Presidents. Yet, the second (John Adams) and the third (Thomas Jefferson) marked a period of time where they despised each other. Adams, during his one term as President, passed a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. One of the penalties proscribed by this legislation mandated imprisonment for those found guilty of speaking out inappropriately and inciting resentment against elected officials such as the President. Thomas Jefferson recognized this for the breach of the First Amendment that it was and vowed to repeal it if he was elected President. He was and he did.

The myth spread for years that the night before Jefferson was to be sworn in, Adams stormed out of the Executive Mansion and refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration. The truth, according to William Bennett’s America: The Last Best Hope, is that the onus was on Jefferson, who failed to invite Adams to his swearing-in ceremony. The breach was deep and would not be mended for years, though the two patriots were once again fast friends before they both died on the same day: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the birth of the nation.

The election of 1824, the last one Adams and Jefferson were still alive to witness, was a genuinely gut-wrenching affair. Neither Adams’ son, John Quincy, nor his opponent, Andrew Jackson, received sufficient votes for election, so the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which tapped John Quincy Adams. Immediately after being elected, Adams the Younger tapped the powerful Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay as his Secretary of State. Few today remember that the Secretary of State post was, in the early years of our nation, a much closer stepping stone to the Presidency than the Vice Presidency was. Bennett points out that every President up until John Quincy Adam’s tenure had served as Secretary of State prior to their respective elections as President. Clandestine payoffs were implied as Jackson’s supporters accused the Adams backers of a “corrupt bargain” and never let up in their venomous charges until Jackson was safely ensconced in the White House in 1828.

Such examples are legion in American political history. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated endlessly over the issue of popular sovereignty in the newly settled states. Franklin Delano Roosevelt accused Herbert Hoover of heartless disregard for the plight of his countrymen as they struggled through 25% unemployment and the accompanying ravages of the Great Depression. Harry S. Truman could barely speak to Dwight Eisenhower in the inaugural limousine, though Truman had once privately told Eisenhower that he could assure him the Democratic Presidential nomination, if Ike wanted it. (Eisenhower won a resounding two terms as the nominee of the other party.)

The case could be made, I think with relative ease that if both parties oddly decided to lay aside all differences and pool resources, gather around the campfire and talk about how to “save the country”, the country would end up in worse shape, not better. For the core differences in this country are not policy, or political, but deeply philosophical, namely, the battle between constitutional conservatism and secular progressivism. The fate of a nation hangs in the balance, as it so often has over our storied past.

Should John C. Calhoun have forcefully waged the argument for states’ rights, which led to his falling out with the President under whom he served, Andrew Jackson? Ought Lincoln to have fought to keep the Union from breaking asunder? Was it proper for FDR to launch the Social Security program? Did Nixon decide correctly when he began the scaling back of forces from Vietnam? Should Reagan have cut discretionary spending by 13%? The answers fall all across the spectrum, but the fact is that in each case, enormous consequences with generational sweep accompanied the actions of each President.

Our time is no different and men and women of conscience will do well, in the parlance of our greatest 20th century President, “to raise a banner of bold colors, rather than pale pastels.” This will, more often than not, involve legislation and accompanying rhetoric in its defense that, though just and true, will anger and discomfit the other side. So be it. Our debt to our children and grandchildren, as well as those who have paid the price on lonely battlefields that we might be free to speak our minds, requires no less than a civil, but forthright defense of constitutional principles by all who march under the banner of conservatism.

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One thought on “In Praise of Partisanship

  1. While reading this leaves me feeling chagrined, I am willing to say “I get it.” I know a path of rainbows and unicorns can’t be constructed from bi-partisanship because bi-partisanship really doesn’t exist. I feel, however, (Maybe that’s my problem – feeling. Perhaps it should be more of a thinking > feeling ratio.) that if I can see the sense in bi-partisanship, then it isn’t an impossible goal, and I should stick to my guns. Or something like that.

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