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June 05, 2006

a few cheers for bipartisanship and comity

I knew Zach Clayton back when. As a high school student, he was one of the two young people who contributed to the Civic Mission of Schools Report, a consensus document otherwise produced by 58 non-youth, including me. Now Zach is helping to organize Unity08, which proposes to field a bipartisan presidential ticket in 2008. David Broder writes in the Washington Post:

[Lindsay] Ullman and [Zach] Clayton, former presidents of the National Association of Student Councils, certainly are right when they say that many of their contemporaries are frustrated by the spectacle of both parties catering to entrenched interest groups and ideological extremes. Even though a senator from his home state, John Edwards, was on the Democratic ticket, Clayton said many of his friends 'didn't like the choices and didn't vote' in 2004.

Notwithstanding Zach's personal experience, I have to disagree with his theory that partisan disagreement generally suppresses turnout. The '04 election was a fierce competition between left and right, and voter participation was the highest since 1968--another year of political polarization. The increased competition seemed to have an especially beneficial effect on youth turnout, which was sharply up, above all in the "battleground" states.

I also disagree with the principle that we should avoid sharp disagreements between the national parties. On the contrary, voters deserve clearly defined choices. There are real disagreements in the population, not just in Congress. Politics is how we address those differences, and we shouldn't paper them over.

However, there are reasons to favor a dose of bipartisanship at this particular moment. In Washington today, there is true partisan enmity: mutual hostility that prevents the parties from making progress even on those issues on which they happen to agree. Neither side is willing to make any sacrifices (e.g., to promote their own economic principles), because they know that the other will exact a political price for anything that causes short-term pain.

We need more "comity," which does not mean agreement or cooperation, but a spirit of mutual respect. As my colleague Eric Uslaner has shown, when there is more comity in Congress, more legislation passes. By the way, the ability to pass legislation will be especially important for Democrats, should they win Congress. Democrats need the federal government to have a generally good reputation, and for that, they must pass bills. Besides, Republicans already have their priorities in place and don't need major legislation.

The Republicans have reduced comity since they won two branches of government, respectively, in 1994 and 2000. But that decline had started before '94. To reverse it, one side or the other should make an overt gesture of comity. For example, if the Democrats take the House in '06, they should amend current House rules in such a way as to improve the situation of the minority. They should then continue to cooperate, but only if the Republicans follow suit. This is the strategy that game theorists call modified tit-for-tat; it is often very successful.

Unity08 proposes a more radical idea: to run a bipartisan presidential ticket whose platform, as Steven Benen argues, would resemble Bill Clinton's. Others have noted practical problems with this idea. (Who would finance the ticket? How would the Republican and Democratic partners decide who would be president and who would be VP?) For me, the biggest problem is ideological. I'm not enthusiastic about the principle that we should seek "moderation," defined as an average between the two parties.

If the Democrats stick to their current positions, they will tend to lose, because they have an electoral minority. If they split the difference with Republicans, they will lack principle and will narrow the range of choice for voters. The best plan, it seems to me, is to find legitimate issues that do not fall on today's ideological spectrum at all. Civic renewal and cultural creativity are examples.

Posted by peterlevine at June 5, 2006 10:31 PM

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