In the wake of the Lieberman/Lamont campaigns, past and future, there’s a renewed preoccupation across the progressive blogosphere about the nature of “bipartisanship.” The general story line is that corrupt and weak Democratic centrists, lusting for the approval of the Two David B.’s (Brooks and Broder), are determined to cave in to Bush and the GOP in the name of “bipartisanship.” This jogged my memory about a New Dem Dispatch back in January of 2001 about the likely trajectory of “bipartisanship” in the Bush era. Just for grins, and for the instruction of those who think the DLC is blind about Rovian partisanship, here it is again. Yes, it’s long, but the subject is important and complicated.DLC New Dem Daily January 9, 2001Ten Kinds of BipartisanshipGeorge W. Bush’s transition has been surrounded by a mist of unfocused talk about bipartisanship, which is said to be, along with an uncompromising commitment to his conservative campaign agenda, the most important principle guiding the first days of his administration. We thought it might be useful to bring a little clarity to the subject by outlining ten distinct types of bipartisan coalitions that have been put together over the years, and then considering which types we might see in the near future.1. The Base-In CoalitionThis strategy, pursued most successfully by President Ronald Reagan in his initial budget in 1981, involves uniting one party in Congress and then picking off sufficient members of the other to put together a majority.2. The Center-Out CoalitionAs the name suggests, this strategy begins with a bloc of like-minded moderates from both parties and gradually adds members from each side until a majority is achieved. The NAFTA, GATT and China PNTR trade bills during the Clinton Administration were enacted by center-out coalitions.3. The Outside-In CoalitionThis variety, typically used by incoming Presidents during their “honeymoon” period, involves the aggressive, direct stimulation of public opinion to push members of the opposing party, especially those from states or districts where the President is popular, to come across the line.4. The Inside-Out CoalitionBy contrast, the Inside-Out Coalition is put together through selective deal-making among members, and then sold to the public as a coherent product. Also known as “logrolling,” the Inside-Out strategy reached its zenith in the last highway reauthorization bill crafted by the King of Asphalt, the now-retiring Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA).5. The Big Barbecue(Rare and messy.) This is a variation on the Inside-Out Coalition, but on a grand scale, involving horse trading among the leadership of both parties and aimed at a near-universal consensus. The infamous 1990 budget agreement, which led President George I to violate his no-new-taxes pledges, is an example of a Big Barbecue.6. The Emergency CoalitionThis coalition traditionally emerges in support of the President during military actions, or, occasionally, during economic emergencies. The budget summitry that briefly emerged after the 1987 stock market plunge is an example of the latter.7. The Ideological CoalitionThis strategy was the standard operating procedure in Congress during the period between the New Deal and the Great Society when there were large numbers of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and ideology replaced party loyalty on many issues. Such coalitions still emerge on some issues, such as international trade, where coalitions of pro- and anti-trade Democrats and Republicans are common.8. The Regional CoalitionOn some issues, especially agriculture and energy policy, regional factors regularly trump party. There are some signs of regional fault lines on trade and technology policy as well.9. GridlockIt’s not common to think of it this way, but partisan stalemate represents a bipartisan decision to maintain the status quo until the electorate provides a decisive election and the clear governing majority — an event that the two parties have now been waiting for since 1980.10. Partisan “Bipartisanship”This strategy, which is not, of course, genuine bipartisanship, involves a sustained campaign to convince the public that the opposing party is the only obstacle to bipartisan progress, and that one’s own party has an agenda that represents the real interests of all Americans. President Clinton’s success in projecting his agenda as representing “progress, not partisanship,” was the key to his recurring victories over Congressional Republicans in budget showdowns. Which of these ten types of bipartisanship are likely to be pursued by the new Bush Administration?The answer isn’t yet clear, but it’s important to remember the defining dilemma the President-elect has posed for the Republican Party. From the moment he announced his candidacy, George W. Bush has tried to achieve the maximum feasible change in the image of the Republican Party through the minimum necessary change in its ideology and agenda. He campaigned to “change the tone in Washington,” to create a “different kind of Republican Party,” and to pursue a new ideology of “compassionate conservatism,” but was the unquestioned candidate of the conservative “base,” and embraced a platform that was mostly composed of the age-old demands of the conservative movement.Given that dilemma, you’d have to guess that he’d like to redeem his pledge to pursue bipartisanship as quickly and as cheaply as possible so that he can then pursue his orthodox conservative agenda. That means he will promote the types of bipartisanship that involve the fewest real concessions to the opposition: Base-In Coalitions to pick off a few Democrats; Outside-In Coalitions to bring public pressure on the opposition; perhaps Inside-Out Coalitions on the Texas model to cut Democrats in on legislative deals; and above all, the Partisan “Bipartisanship” of constantly claiming that he embodies the genuine interests of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.If that’s the case, Democrats who are interested in real bipartisanship should refuse to accept the cheap variety, and raise the price for bipartisan cooperation. Then George W. Bush will finally be forced to choose between his rhetoric and his agenda, and we’ll find out how different the real Republican Party actually is. Considering that this was published before the true Rovian nature of Bush’s agenda became clear, and at a time when the mainstream media were assuming Bush would “go centrist” because of the nature of the 2000 election, I think this analysis was rather prescient, if I say so myself. But no matter what you think, it should be understood that Democratic “centrists” don’t miss the point of Rovian polarization and what that means for genuine “bipartisanship.” There are legitimate differences of opinion about how Democrats should respond to polarization, but no real argument that the word “bipartanship” has many meanings, some of them legitimate, some not so: at least ten.
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.