Alter: Bipartisanship Is All but Dead

Say sayonara to "kumbaya." Bipartisanship is all but dead in Washington. President Obama cut a deal to win passage of his necessary—if not sufficient—stimulus bill with the last three moderate Republicans in Congress. But his effort to put a true conservative, Judd Gregg, in his cabinet turned out to be a bridge too far. While Obama wins points for coming across as a gracious and accommodating leader, his dream of a less polarized politics has been deferred—at least until he builds a new mass movement of independent voters with the help of the Terminator.

Before I explain what California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has to do with the detoxification of Washington, let's briefly review how the purple dream went bust. After the economy tanked last fall, every sentient economist, including the top economic advisers to Ronald Reagan and John McCain, knew that we needed a large stimulus to avoid a depression. It looked like the new president would get at least a handful of GOP members of the House and as many as 20 Senate Republicans.

Then, before even listening to Obama's pitch, House Minority Leader John Boehner sent out the word: no. Even after the president readily agreed to take out controversial "cable bait," such as money for contraceptives and seeding the grass on the Mall, the Republicans shifted to new bogus arguments and examples of tiny programs that weren't pork but could be made to look that way.

Republicans made up a story that they had no chance to voice their views (the bills were, in fact, marked up in public sessions) and claimed that tax cuts are a better stimulus than government spending, which is demonstrably false. When the deal was finally cut, the new GOP chairman, Michael Steele, put out a press release that perfectly captured his party's vacuous argument. His lead example of what was wrong with the bill was that it contained $200 million for AmeriCorps. As it happens, AmeriCorps is an almost perfect vehicle for stimulus because it's set up to create jobs instantaneously.

The big question is: even if they think the stimulus is a rotten piece of sausage, why wouldn't more of them want to help their ailing constituents? Why not team up with a honeymooning president whose popularity is three times that of his predecessor?

Part of the answer is baldly political. Republicans hope to break the new president's momentum—make him "fail," as de facto GOP chairman Rush Limbaugh urged—so they can say "I told you so" in November 2010.

Part of the answer is principled. As Obama said at his press conference last Monday, some are just philosophically opposed. He was too gentlemanly to add that they are also economically and historically ignorant. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell even claimed that government spending didn't get us out of the Great Depression. What does he think did? Tax cuts? New Deal programs reduced unemployment nearly in half (if you include government jobs) and the Depression ended when the government intervened heavily in the economy at the onset of WWII.

And a big part of the answer is structural. The underlying explanation for the failure of bipartisanship is our flawed primary system. It sounds strange, but few Republicans fear being beaten by a Democrat; they come mostly from deeply red areas and have high odds of surviving a general election. The real fear is an upset in a Republican primary, as conservative Utah Rep. Chris Cannon suffered last year when he ventured too close to the center on immigration.

The American primary system, now about 100 years old, is disturbingly antidemocratic. It disenfranchises independents, who make up about a third of the electorate and aren't allowed to vote in most party primaries. It pushes candidates in both parties to the extremes, which polarizes the debate in ways that don't reflect the centrist views of the vast majority of Americans. And it allows a tiny handful of activist voters to determine who runs the country.

How tiny? In 35 states, the presidential primaries are now held on an earlier date than those for governor, House, Senate and legislative seats. This greatly depresses turnout in the state and local races. Even in the civic-minded states of Iowa and New Hampshire, nonpresidential primary turnout was about 9 percent of registered voters (OK, they were burned out from their intense presidential contests). In Connecticut, it was 14 percent. South Carolina got up to 17 percent and California, 28 percent. That's pathetic. And if you consider eligible voters, the numbers shrink further. All told, only about a seventh of adult citizens vote in nonpresidential primaries, which means that our representative democracy is not, well, representative.

Merely allowing independents to vote in party primaries hasn't done much to address the problem. The best remedy is a truly open primary, where the top two vote getters square off in the general election, even if they are both from the same party. This sounds radical, but it is no more so than other expansions of democracy like the direct election of U.S. senators (until the early 20th century, they were mostly chosen by state legislatures), women's suffrage and lowering the voting age.

Not surprisingly, interest groups and party regulars tend to hate the idea. Oregon voters rejected a ballot initiative for an open primary last fall after swallowing distortions peddled by the teachers' union. But California will vote on an open primary ballot initiative in 2010 and Schwarzenegger, weary of local partisanship, says it's "the next thing" and will enthusiastically back it. Most other big ideas (e.g., the green thing) start in California, and this one might spread quickly, too.

Obama won the White House because of a talent for strategic political thinking. As he looks to victories beyond the stimulus package, he needs to attract mini-Baracks to Washington—fresh, temperate voices in both parties. It's a long-term project, but he could start by offering a new birth of freedom for independent voters and political aspirants trying to move the country out of the valley of the wing nuts.

Join the Discussion