(This is an op-ed that ran in the Washington Times on Sunday, up against my friend Steny Hoyer's opinion piece.)
In coming weeks, President Bush, John McCain, Barack Obama and the Democrats running Congress will all try to blame the other guys for the deadlock in Congress. "We just can't get anything done," they will lament, as only political candidates can. The ideal scenario expressed in the speeches of all of the above will be a gauzy time in the middle distance when we can finally set aside our petty differences, come together and solve our problems in a bipartisan manner. The enemy of this rhetorical era of good feeling is said to be partisanship. [# More #]
The first problem with the post-partisan dream is that America's (or the Left's) oft-referenced golden age of pre-partisan harmony never existed. During the Revolutionary War, at least one-third of the American colonists sided with the British. Thomas Jefferson slandered the Federalists with government resources, and, of course, Alexander Hamilton was fatally shot by the sitting vice president. John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay practically stole a presidential election from Andrew Jackson. Republican Sen. Charles Sumner was caned on the floor of the Senate by Democratic Congressman Preston Brooks in 1851.
Then there was the unpleasantness of 1861 to 1865. Then Reconstruction's humiliation of the South, the Gilded Age's exploitation of the Common Man, Progressivism's creepy holy war against anyone who disagreed with it, our 20-year experiment with socialism between the wars, America First, "Who lost China?," Vietnam, the Nixon mess, the Carter debacle, Reagan, Clinton, Bush ... tell me, when exactly did Americans set aside their differences and solve our problems in a nonpartisan fashion?
The second and more important objection to gauzy, gooey post-partisanship is simple: Who really wants it?
Listening to the Democrats at their convention this week, I find that they think people have a fundamental right to health insurance, but not a fundamental right to life. They think the Iraq war was a mistake. They think President Bush is a bigger threat to our democracy than jihadist terror. They think the solution to our energy crisis is asking Saudi Arabia to pretty please drill some more oil for us. They think "community organizer" is a real job.
Agreeing with such things would not require the setting aside of a conservative's differences, but his principles. It's impossible for everyone to agree on a policy, so in a democracy, it's not important that they do. All that matters is that all have their say in shaping that policy. If we lose, fine, but at least we have a fair shake. As long as we have winner-take-all elections, we're going to have two parties, and as long we have two parties, we're going to have partisanship. There are plenty of models for "post-partisan" government around the world - Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia come to mind - but few would actually recommend them.
Vigorous argument about political differences is not rancor - it's democracy. And lest we forget, deadlock is often the best option. Take the energy debate. The Democrats are scrambling to come up with a way to protect themselves from the drubbing they're taking on offshore drilling. The bill they produce is going to be awful. It will contain 1 percent drilling and 99 percent stupid. On the other hand, if Congress does nothing, the moratorium on offshore drilling expires Oct. 1. If "setting aside differences" and "getting things done" means Democrats throwing a drilling ban on a spending bill, thereby canceling Energy Freedom Day and potentially causing a government shutdown, I'll take deadlock any day. And according to public opinion polls, so would most Americans.
Partisanship, for lack of a better word, is good. Partisanship helps to clarify choices and explain options. It also provides our only meaningful vehicle for reform - whether from the Left or the Right. Social Security and Medicare - whatever you may think of them - were not American ideas, but projects of the Democrat Party. Meanwhile, welfare reform and growth-minded fiscal policy achieved national support only after the Republican Party promoted them in the teeth of partisan opposition. If nationalized health care is ever adopted, it will be over the screaming opposition of conservatives, and if we ever open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, Democrats may cane a few more Republicans along the way.
And that's a good thing (well, not the caning, I guess). It is good that laws governing 300 million people spread across a vast continent are very hard to enact. National laws should only express national consensus, and the reason we have policy arguments is that consensus isn't yet reached. When it is, legislative majorities will materialize, and we'll move on to new arguments.
And if history is any guide, those arguments will be loud, unyielding, overheated, partisan as hell, and in many cases will lead to years of entrenched deadlock. God bless America.