Like most presidents, Barack Obama came to The White House hoping his unique gifts might overcome party divisions in Washington. And as with most presidents, it has not taken him long to discover otherwise. His second week in office saw the most distinctly party-line vote on a major piece of legislation in the House of Representatives in many years, as exactly zero Republicans voted for the stimulus bill, while all but 11 Democrats backed it.
The bulk of the fault surely lay with the bill itself. Hardly a model of post-partisan pragmatism, it was a kind of greatest-hits collection gathered up from two decades of Democratic pet projects. Assorted union giveaways, boosts to favored federal programs, regulatory fixes, grants to constituent lobbies and other sundry odds and ends were all shoved together into a mess of a bill, designed more to satisfy the longstanding demands of Democratic interest groups than to address the particulars of the economic crisis. Republicans felt no guilt in opposing it. Even some Democrats who voted for it were uncomfortable. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly, explained the 11 Democratic defections by saying: "Many of the districts are more conservative, and they campaigned on fiscal responsibility, and we understand that"—suggesting, it seems, that the bill his boss sponsored was fiscally irresponsible.
The remarkable party unity on display on both sides was not a one-shot deal. The bumps in the Obama administration's start, from these legislative travails to a cabinet appointment process marked by controversy, have energized Republicans. Meanwhile, Democrats have united behind a "we won, so get over it" approach—refusing to bend until forced, even as Obama himself meets with Republicans and tries to charm them over drinks at the White House. Some bipartisan gestures have certainly gone over well—most notably the retention of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which signaled continuity and moderation. But on the whole it seems clear that Washington is not about to heed Obama's call for a new post-partisan era in which, as he put it in his Inaugural Address, we might "proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."
The persistence of partisanship is inevitable—yet it should not disappoint us. While bipartisanship has its virtues—it remains the best means of pushing through politically painful reforms—partisanship is not a vice. At its best, the partisan fray expresses the maturity of our political life; and even at its worst (which is to say, most of the time) it is a better way to govern ourselves than the pursuit at all costs of an elusive technocratic consensus.
The president's familiar pining for such a consensus expresses in part his desire to get his own way, of course, and as a liberal Democrat his way is itself partisan. But it also reaches back to an ancient republicanism that condemned parties in politics as a means by which permanent factions pursued their private interests instead of the public good. For as much as they are beholden to interest groups, however, large modern parties are really giving form to disagreements about the public good. They express a genuine difference of opinion about what is best for the whole. And precisely because that split runs very deep, our two major parties actually turn out to be pretty effective expressions of public views about a wide range of issues.
It is not a coincidence that people who believe in traditional values also tend to believe in a strong military: both views express an underlying premise about the intractability of human nature. It is not a coincidence that people who favor a large welfare state also tend to believe that diplomacy can resolve most global conflicts: both views express an underlying sense that most human problems are functions of an imperfect distribution of resources.
Our deepest disagreements coalesce into two broad views of human nature that define the public life of every free society. In a crude and general way our political parties give expression to these views, and allow the roughly like-minded to pool their voices and their votes in order to turn beliefs into action.
To ridicule these disagreements and assert as our new president also did in his inaugural that "the time has come to set aside childish things" is to demean as insignificant the great debates that have formed our republic over more than two centuries. These arguments—about the proper relationship between the state and the citizen, about America's place in the world, about the regard and protection we owe to one another, about how we might best reconcile economic prosperity and cultural vitality, national security and moral authority, freedom and virtue—are divisive questions of enormous consequence, and for all the partisanship they have engendered they are neither petty nor childish.
They are the substance of the political life of a healthy and thriving democracy, and Barack Obama, whether he likes it or not, has just thrown himself into the middle of them all. We can all join him in the pursuit of the public good. But in a democracy that pursuit includes arguing over just what the public good might be.