Bipartisanship and the Well Functioning Democracy Part Two

(Part 1 is here)

A substantial victory margin for Barack Obama and two strong elections for the Democratic Party unquestionably constitute a mandate. But a mandate to do what? In a broad sense, it is a mandate for change. In specific terms, the answer is somewhat less clear.

Paul Krugman argues that the mandate is for “a new era of progressive policies” because “this year’s presidential election was a clear referendum on political philosophies — and the progressive philosophy won.” That is certainly true with regard to the progressive changes that were at the forefront of the election: a tax policy that requires the wealthy to shoulder a greater burden while providing middle class relief; health care reform; investment in the nation’s infrastructure; more robust regulation of the financial industry; withdrawal of troops from Iraq; a foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy over aggression. It is less clear that voters intended to send a mandate to enact a broader progressive agenda.

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Voters clearly rejected the conservative philosophies that caused the economy’s meltdown: it was the 2008 election’s defining issue. They rejected John McCain’s model of health care reform. In 2006, they rejected the neocon lust to use military power to shape foreign governments. Barack Obama and Democrats have a mandate to move forward with all deliberate speed in those areas.

Arguably Obama has a mandate to implement every specific policy change described on his campaign website or promised in a speech, but I seriously doubt that most voters for either candidate had a clear understanding of issues that were not central to the campaign (for instance, Obama’s positions on criminal justice reform). I’m not at all sure that the independent/swing voters who decide elections have embraced a larger progressive philosophy. I wish it were true (and think it may be true for young voters), but I suspect that most independent voters who cast a ballot for Obama voted for competence, not for a comprehensive progressive philosophy. Staring at an economic crisis that Republicans stoked, remembering Katrina and cronyism and the mismanagement of two wars, swing voters opted for Obama because he, unlike McCain, inspired confidence that government could be made to function again. Obama’s largest mandate, it seems to me, is to use good judgment, to govern competently and honestly, and to clean up the mess that Republican government created.

After repeatedly promising to be a post-partisan president -- to be every American’s president, not just a president for liberal bloggers like me -- Obama created a mandate to govern in a bipartisan way. This does not mean that Obama should advance some elements of a conservative agenda or that he should move slowly on economic and health care reform or troop withdrawal. I agree with Krugman that "Obama shouldn’t listen to the people trying to scare him into being a do-nothing president." Voters put Obama in office to fix problems his way, not to give Republican ideology a do-over.

Democrats can govern in a bipartisan way by following procedures that allow the minority party to participate meaningfully in the legislative process. This is something Republicans did not do. In a 2006 Rolling Stone article, Matt Taibbi explained how Republicans ruled by cabal, shutting Democrats out of the secret meetings at which they crafted legislation.

American government was not designed for one-party rule but for rule by consensus -- so this current batch of Republicans has found a way to work around that product design. They have scuttled both the spirit and the letter of congressional procedure, turning the lawmaking process into a backroom deal, with power concentrated in the hands of a few chiefs behind the scenes. This reduces the legislature to a Belarus-style rubber stamp, where the opposition is just there for show, human pieces of stagecraft -- a fact the Republicans don't even bother to conceal.

Democrats should not play those games. Democrats should play by the rules and govern responsibly. They should enact laws openly. They should give Republicans a chance to be heard. Democrats were not elected to help Republicans advance a conservative agenda, but Democrats should give Republicans a fair opportunity to be heard as bills advance through the legislative process.

In the House, Republicans are likely to have little overall influence on legislation, but if Republicans advance a sound amendment that improves a bill, the amendment shouldn’t be rejected simply because it comes from a Republican. Bipartisanship requires the majority party at least to listen to the minority, even if the minority view is ultimately unpersuasive. In the Senate, the power of the filibuster gives the minority party greater influence. As tempting as it would be to threaten the nuclear option if Republicans filibuster judicial candidates, an irresponsible Republican tactic would be just as irresponsible if indulged in by Democrats.

By virtue of their numbers, Senate Democrats will be in a good position to advance progressive legislation and to overcome filibusters. By voting so many Democrats into office, the public sent a message that it wants Democrats to get things done. Without a leader in the White House enforcing party unity, and with 19 Republican senators facing reelection in two years, I question how frequently Republicans in the Senate will stand together to block significant legislation. Democrats should be able to scare up the few Republican votes they will need to move their central agenda forward against threatened filibusters. Democrats may have to cut some deals that send a little extra infrastructure money to Maine, or they may have to make some face-saving adjustments to legislation to bring enough Republicans aboard, but that’s how bipartisan politics works.

In the executive branch, bipartisan governance means, in part, that administrative agencies should follow the rule-making process that the Bush administration so often ignored. Administrative rules are typically proposed and publicized, allowing a time for public comment and rule revision before the rule is finally enacted. That procedure gives all voices a chance to be heard and permits the public to influence the rule-making process. The Bush administration repeatedly adopted "emergency rules" in non-emergency situations, set unreasonably short comment periods, and ignored public comment, assuring that its rules were made without bipartisan influence. Even now, the administration is rushing to enact rules despite voters' rejection of Republican administration of the nation's government. Barack Obama can restore bipartisanship to the Executive Branch by assuring that agencies listen to all voices before promulgating a final rule.

So post-partisan governance means, in part, following procedures that allow the minority party to participate in the lawmaking process. The last question I want to examine is how to go about advancing a progressive agenda in a bipartisan way, given that the outer limits of a progressive mandate are unclear. I’ll have some thoughts on that in a day or two.

Link to Part 3 (link will activate after Part 3 is posted)

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  • Display: Sort:
    How to go about advancing a progressive agenda? (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by befuddledvoter on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 04:47:09 PM EST
    I would first stop labeling it a "progressive agenda."  The label makes some bristle, without really considering the substance.  

    Even playing by the rules, (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by andgarden on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 05:13:21 PM EST
    Republicans will be largely left out of the decision making process next Congress. And if Stevens and Coleman end up losing, bipartisanship will mean satisfying Olympia Snowe and maybe Joe Lieberman.

    Republicans understand well that elections have consequences. And while I have no problem extending the gestures that would usually go to a party of their numbers in Congress, I do not want, nor do I expect, Obama to go out of his way in accommodating the Republicans.

    What happened to Obama reaching (none / 0) (#11)
    by BrassTacks on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 09:51:02 PM EST
    Across the aisle and changing the tone in Washington?  Lots of people believed him.  Did he just say all that stuff just to win the election?  I'm starting to think that his whole change mantra was just for show.  That will be very disappointing to many voters.  

    Duh, of course it was (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by andgarden on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 10:34:33 PM EST
    I won't be at all disappointed. Heck, I'll be delighted if I never hear more Unity Shtick again.

    Make changes (5.00 / 2) (#7)
    by koshembos on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 06:40:21 PM EST
    The average voter doesn't care about mandates, agendas and labels. What these voters want is a health care for all that works and doesn't cost way more than they pay today. They want better, available and cheap education for their kids. First and foremost, they want an economy that works, provides them with decent living and increases as they position at work (or their business) increases.

    We progressive want that too. We have other goals such as better media, better neighborhoods, no drilling for oil in national treasures, etc. We will get the support for that from the people if we deliver the minimal required improvement.

    Talk about ideologies and mandates makes little sense to most of us who come home after 7pm, eat, watch little TV and wake up again at 6am. Actually, such talk is a mockery of the salt of the earth that most of the country is.

    Mind you, I probably way to left of 99% of TalLeft readers.

    Also, (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by lilburro on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 08:30:31 PM EST
    I think more important than bipartisanship is Democrats cooperating with each other and appearing effective/competent.  If we have some kind of Clinton-Baucus-Kennedy infight over healthcare that dominates the news, the cries for bipartisanship are going to increase, and we will have lost an opportunity to proceed competently on Democratic ideas supported by Democrats.  If three Democrats are fighting, will the public want a fourth to break it up?  Probably not, especially if Republicans are whispering into their ears that Dems are the problem.

    tactically (none / 0) (#2)
    by Salo on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 05:10:10 PM EST
    we should attempt to drive a wedge between the cons and moderates (any moderates that still exist) maybe even encourage a mini civil war between those factions --I'm not sure the precice policy that should be used. Encouraging their lunatics to attack relentlessly would help...

    I think global warming is a good wedge (none / 0) (#5)
    by ThatOneVoter on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 05:14:21 PM EST
    issue. The crazy-cons are still denying that global warming exists, while the moderates want to save the world for their children.

    Reading the mood (none / 0) (#3)
    by Manuel on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 05:11:00 PM EST
    That is certainly true with regard to the progressive changes that were at the forefront of the election: a tax policy that requires the wealthy to shoulder a greater burden while providing middle class relief; health care reform; investment in the nation's infrastructure; more robust regulation of the financial industry; withdrawal of troops from Iraq; a foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy over aggression.

    Those ideas are not progressive.  Those ideas along with a sane energy policy are plain common sense and I thing most voters view them that way.

    On bailouts (e.g. HOLC) Obama needs to be careful on how the issue is framed and how far and how fast he reaches.  The financial rescue plan was not popular.  Expanding it to more industries and individuals could be a political liability despite the merits.

    If Obama doesn't bailout the auto industry, (none / 0) (#12)
    by BrassTacks on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 09:55:03 PM EST
    Among others, he will not be too popular with the unions, and all those retirees and workers who depend on the auto industry for their income.  

    Agreed (none / 0) (#16)
    by Manuel on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 11:44:42 PM EST
    The Dems (and some Republicans) will bail out the auto industry.  The trick will be where the line gets drawn.  They will probably pass some mortgage relief but they will probably fall far short of a true HOLC.

    Mandate (none / 0) (#6)
    by lentinel on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 05:28:32 PM EST
    To the extent that the mandate given to Obama and the democrats included "withdrawal of troops from Iraq" and "a foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy over aggression", I am not hopeful that it will be followed.

    Obama's Bush-like reaction to Ahmadinejad's letter was a downer.

    And I have yet to hear even the word "Iraq" mentioned by anyone in the incoming administration.

    Judging by Obama's previous statements endorsing the installation of the missile shield in Poland, incursions into Pakistan without the approval of the government, and proposing the sending of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to fight a war "we must win", a progressive shift to diplomacy over aggression and jingoism is not on the front burner.

    Does Chuck Hagel (none / 0) (#8)
    by lilburro on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 07:28:01 PM EST
    have any friends left in the Senate?  I'm down with working with them on foreign policy.  But I can't think of any Republican idea that was given voter approval this year.  Obama needs to say that he intends to keep his campaign promises - to lower taxes, get us out of Iraq, and overhaul healthcare.  Those need to be made clear.  Then lawmakers can work together.  Obama gets the first word and the last.

    Perhaps if his idea of more transparency in government is implemented, working in a "bipartisan" way will be easier.  People will know that Republicans are technically being worked with - but that doesn't mean their ideology is being advanced.

    Obama needs to raise taxes on billionaires. (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by magnetics on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 07:54:26 PM EST
    Other than that, Bush didn't have a mandate for wiretapping; he just did it.  Granted, a Rethuglican gets more slack in the SCLMSM than a Democrat, and there was always the national security hysteria card to play.

    But Obama  needs not to worry about what the voters thought they voted for; he just has to go ahead and fix what's broken; and God knows he'll have his hands full with that.


    Obama doesn't need to worry about what (none / 0) (#13)
    by BrassTacks on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 09:57:20 PM EST
    He promised to do during the election?  Wow.  Just wow.  

    And I'd like to offer you a an excellent price (none / 0) (#17)
    by magnetics on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 01:57:01 AM EST
    on this bridge in Brooklyn.



    Jeralyn, great post, on the money (none / 0) (#14)
    by BrassTacks on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 10:03:28 PM EST
    Obama would do well to pay attention to what you say.

    Jeralyn didn't write it. (none / 0) (#18)
    by TChris on Mon Nov 10, 2008 at 09:58:34 AM EST
    Yes dear, I am aware of that (none / 0) (#19)
    by BrassTacks on Fri Nov 14, 2008 at 02:49:50 AM EST
    I was commenting on the post.  Not the author.