Indiana Senator Evan Bayh shocked Democrats and Republicans alike last week by suddenly announcing his retirement from the U.S. Senate. The moderate Democrat has held the seat since 1999, and most analysts agree that he was not at significant risk of losing reelection.
“There is much too much partisanship and not enough progress,” he declared in a statement accompanying his announcement, “too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous national challenge, the people’s business is not getting done.”
Bayh’s given rationale for retirement strikes me as coming a bit late, given the fact that he has served as a senator for nearly a dozen years. Anyone who has spent that much time in either the Senate or Congress should have realized long ago that the partisan divide is deeply entrenched in our national consciousness and pervades our institutions. Not even Barack Obama has managed to forge consensus, and for good reason: His definition of bipartisanship requires Republicans to either bow to his liberal agenda or be criticized for stubborn obstructionism and subsequently labeled “the party of ‘no.'”
To be fair, the Republican Party still has yet to propose substantive alternatives to Obama’s policies that gain national attention, mainly because it lacks coherent leadership. But because the Democrats control both houses of Congress and the presidency, it makes it virtually impossible for the opposing party to set any sort of agenda, and thus Republicans are forced to muster what little power they have to defeat what they see as a dangerous encroachment by the national government into the lives of Americans.
Ironically, however, it isn’t the Republicans who are blocking Obama’s legislative agenda. If that were the case, Democrats should have had no problem pushing through their bills with the overwhelming majorities they hold in the House and the Senate. Centrist, fiscally-conservative Democrats like Evan Bayh are the real stumbling blocks to proposals like the health care overhaul and cap-and-trade, which says something about Obama’s vision of bipartisanship. If members of his own party cannot swallow his far-left policies, how can he expect any Republicans to do so?
Pundits and the public alike are apt to look at the gridlock in Congress and declare that the system is broken. Yet oddly enough, they forget that the Founders deliberately designed the legislative process in a way that would make it difficult for bills to reach the president’s desk. They did this specifically to promote reasoned deliberation rather than the hasty passage of legislation based on the fickle whims of the masses that can easily be swayed by demagogues, especially in times of crisis. Obama tried to take advantage of his popularity early in his term, but squandered his political capital on a massive stimulus package that has received mixed reviews at best, leaving him little momentum to push his health care plan through Congress. The system is working, just not quite the way those who wish to expand the national government would like it.
In light of their stalled efforts at health care reform, liberal pundits, in typical condescending fashion, have begun lashing out at the American people. They insist that their problems stem from conservative misinformation campaigns, poor presentation of their arguments, or, to use the words of Jacob Weisberg of Slate Magazine, “the childishness, ignorance and growing incoherence of the public at large.”
Excuse me, Mr. Weisberg, but didn’t that same group of “childish,” “ignorant,” “incoherent” Americans elect Obama to the presidency just over a year ago? My how things change so quickly!
Instead of pointing the finger of blame at Republicans and the public, perhaps Democrats should take time to reexamine their policy proposals and reevaluate their dismissal of conservative ideas. Senator Bayh’s parting words of advice are especially pertinent to this undertaking:
“Our most strident partisans must learn to occasionally sacrifice short-term tactical political advantage for the sake of the nation. Otherwise, Congress will remain stuck in an endless cycle of recrimination and revenge … What is required from members of Congress and the public alike is a new spirit of devotion to the national welfare beyond party or self-interest. In a time of national peril, with our problems compounding, we must remember that more unites us as Americans than divides us.”
If Obama truly wants to promote bipartisanship, he must be just as willing to compromise as he expects Republicans to be. Otherwise he will be fighting against not only the American public, but the very system of government he has vowed to uphold.
Christie Pesavento is a senior who is majoring in political science and sociology. She can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.