Commentary Magazine

"Never Mind"

E.J. Dionne, Jr. has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of bipartisanship in the Age of Obama. It is a trap that Democrats can easily fall into and be snared by, so E.J. has decided to use his column to warn of its evils. In his column yesterday, for example, he wrote this:

Where did we get the idea that the only good health care bill is a bipartisan bill? Is bipartisanship more important than whether a proposal is practical and effective?… Trying to achieve full bipartisanship by squaring those two views [held by Democrats and Republicans] is a recipe for incoherence…

And back in February, in the context of the debate over the stimulus package, Dionne issued essentially the same warning. “If achieving bipartisanship takes priority over the actual content of policy,” he wrote, “then Republicans are handed a powerful weapon.” He added, “The House stimulus bill includes a lot of education money. Will students be thrown over the side in pursuit of a nebulous cross-party comity?” (The Washington Post, 2/2/09)

So where did we get the silly idea that bipartisanship and “nebulous cross-party comity” are worth pursuing? Maybe from the man who, during the Bush years, wrote this:

The whole thing is sad when you consider there was always an alternative approach – and, yes, a moderate, bipartisan approach … It would have entailed a tax cut for this year and perhaps next directed primarily toward middle-income taxpayers…. Bush traded this bipartisan opportunity for a chance to keep an outdated campaign tax-cut promise … (The Washington Post, 9/7/01)

And this:

It’s been a long time since partisanship was as deep as it is now. … Up in heaven, Abe Lincoln must be shaking his head in astonishment. The country he sought to keep united is pulling apart politically, and largely along the same lines that defined Honest Abe’s election victory in 1860. (The Washington Post, 11/7/03)

And this:

The rules of policymaking that have applied since the end of World War II are now irrelevant. A narrow Republican majority will work its partisan will no matter what. … Until now, Congress was a forcefully independent branch of government. … With a slim congressional majority, Bush would have been expected to seek genuine compromise – under the old rules. But Washington has become so partisan and Bush is so determined to push through a domestic program based almost entirely on tax cuts for the wealthy that a remarkably radical program is winning … (The Washington Post, 5/30/03)

And this:

He cooperated with Democratic leaders, transforming a partisan administration into a coalition presidency. Perhaps Bush would follow the example of that unifying Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. History did not unfold that way. (The Washington Post, 9/8/06)

And this:

if the president were genuinely interested in a bipartisan compromise, he would put everything on the table – including his own tax cuts that have added to the budget deficit. (The Washington Post, 2/4/05)

And this:

If ‘getting over’ the divisive and troubling endgame of the [2000] election is supposed to be in the national interest, doesn’t the president have an obligation to help? Is it unfair to insist that he pursue a more moderate course? (The Washington Post, 1/28/01)

And who was the author of these paeans to bipartisanship and cross-party comity? Why, E.J. Dionne, Jr.

It turns out that Dionne was not terribly interested in bipartisanship for its own sake; what he was interested in was slowing down conservatism and advancing liberalism. During the Bush years, bipartisanship was simply a means to an end, a convenient club he could whack Bush and Republicans who were in power with. Now that Obama and Democrats are in control, bipartisanship is a useless and even a pernicious concept. It turns out that the arguments advocated by Dionne ad nauseam during the Bush years – that bipartisanship is a worthy end in itself, a salve necessary to heal a wounded country, a pathway out of our deep divisions and angry differences, a demonstration of admirable large-spiritedness – was a fairly elaborate fiction. In the memorable words of Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character Emily Litella, “Never Mind.”

We can all agree that intellectual fair-mindedness is a rare (and admirable) quality, and that double standards are common in politics, as well as in life. But it is not often that the double standards are this glaring, and even blinding, in a single person. Perhaps before Dionne writes his next column warning of the terrible dangers of bipartisanship and “nebulous cross-party comity,” he can explain to the rest of us why he was making precisely the opposite argument when a Republican was in office. And perhaps his readers can see Dionne’s columns for what they are: partisan advocacy pieces dressed up in whatever clothing suites the moment.



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