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Bipartisanship Is a Lost Cause

Michael Gerson joins the lament over Obama’s partisanship:

But there are downsides as well. Obama is already one of the most consistently polarizing presidents of the last 60 years. His current campaign strategy, win or lose, will deepen our national divisions. It was unreasonable to believe that Obama could reverse the long-term political trend toward polarization. But it is still sad when a leader ceases to fight the current.

Complaining about excessive partisanship in an election contest is inherently ridiculous. The idea that partisan divisions are things that can somehow be “transcended” through a certain type of leadership was always just as silly. Polarization is an unavoidable part of contemporary politics, which Congressional Republicans have understood and fully exploited for the last three years. Obama is “one of the most consistently polarizing presidents” in modern times because the Bush-McCain voting coalition was bound to be at least as vehemently opposed to him as the Obama coalition had been to Bush. As it turned out, their opposition was even stronger. It was never very likely that Bush’s Democratic successor was going to be able to cooperate very effectively with Republicans, and I’m reasonably sure that sort of cooperation wasn’t really what the vast majority of Obama voters had in mind when they voted for him.

Obama’s failure is measured in the remarkable amount of time it has taken him to realize that accommodation with the other party was a major error. The funny thing is that Obama spent the better part of two years embarrassing himself with efforts to accommodate members of the opposing party, and he was met with absolute reflexive opposition. He governed more or less in the uninspired “centrist” fashion that fetishists of bipartisanship claim to want. If it had not been for the large majorities his party had in Congress when he came into office, it would have profited him nothing. Obama’s accommodationist instincts led him to keep giving ground long after it had ceased to make any sense. In the end, that is what people mean by bipartisanship when they want to praise it: the other party supports our priorities and compromises on theirs. Virtually no one believes that bipartisanship is desirable in and of itself, and the people who do seem to believe that are mostly interested in guarding the political and policy status quo against challenges from both sides of the political spectrum.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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