“They could write like angels and scheme like demons.” This is how author Edward J. Larson describes two of our nation’s founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – in his book, A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign.
Those wonderful and often cantankerous giants also grew to define the partisanship of their day. This difference of philosophy and policy was part of our national DNA just about from the beginning. Sure, there were always cries back then – as there are today - for the end of partisanship. Even General George “Father-Of-Our-Country” Washington feared the approach of party politics. But the partisanship he dreaded was the kind that would bring about change contrary to what he wanted. And there’s the rub.
It’s bipartisan if you agree with me. It’s partisan if you don’t.
Like it or not, partisanship has been part of our national fabric all along. And all Americans should fervently hope that we never actually see a benign and boring bipartisanship break out all over. For some reason, possibly naivety on the part of some, though maybe something more manipulative on the part of others, the cry of bipartisanship is the ultimate political trump card these days. Getting everyone to work and play together – to walk in complete utopian agreement – is seen as the ultimate political ideal.
It sounds nice. It feels good when political foes trade anger for civility, and it makes sense on a certain level that people need to talk with, rather than at, each other. I get that. But debate – even the rancorous kind - is part of out national narrative. It may be unpleasant at times, and it is easy to grow weary of the fighting, but this kind of thing may actually be indispensable for the long-term health of our republic.
Could the current call for bipartisanship really be little more than the glorification of something quite detrimental to effective governance?
I’m talking about groupthink.
As President Obama and his new administration grapple with the complex issues before them, and try to find traction dealing with a surprisingly feisty, if not recalcitrant, Republican minority in Congress, they would do well to look in depth at the age of Camelot. But they should study the fall of 1962, not the spring of 1961.