A Case For Restoring America's Bipartisan Political Tradition
“Behold our 1990 campaign t-shirt: some of our best friends are Democrats.” So said Governor Bill Weld, former two-term Republican governor of Massachusetts, as he eulogized his dear friend and old State House second mate, Argeo Paul Cellucci.
Those were the days. None of us, as observers, can imagine today’s political leaders choosing to compliment the opposing party in any setting – to say nothing of using the compliment as a slogan on a campaign t-shirt.
A little more than four years removed from the 2012 presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney lost narrowly in the popular vote, but convincingly in the electoral tally, the Romney-Obama race seems a relic of the past. Thinking back to 2012, we might feel as though we are tracing our memories to antiquity. Of course, President Obama and Governor Romney disagreed vehemently on nearly every issue, and they debated fiercely, but personal animosity was hardly, if ever, present. Rather, the two candidates accepted each other as gentleman who differed on policy, both of whom could ably fulfill the duties constitutionally required of the American president. While their visions for America did not align, the concern in their hearts for making America a better place aligned perfectly.
Debating President Barack Obama in October of 2012, Mitt Romney offered perhaps the sharpest rebuke yet of decades-long Democratic criticism of Republican economic policy, arguing: “The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago: that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more – if you will, trickle-down government – would work. That’s not the right answer for America.” Governor Romney had it right. By turning a favorite Democratic attack line – accusing Republicans of advocating so-called “trickle-down” or “voodoo” economics – against Democrats, Romney put the incumbent president on his heels. Yet throughout Governor Romney remained civil, cordial, and even gentlemanly.
Rhetorical theatrics aside, though, the difference between Romney and Obama’s economic outlooks represents a fundamental – and deeply polarizing – distinction between the Republican and Democratic parties’ respective prescriptions for economic growth. On the one hand, borrowing Governor Romney’s pithy phrase, Democrats incessantly advocate for “trickle-down government policies” as the solution to our financial woes. On the other hand, Republicans generally favor, Donald Trump notwithstanding, expanding the economic pie, thus broadening the tax base and increasing revenue. With more people working and earning high wages, Republicans hold, the government will have plenty of revenue for running the country, building infrastructure, caring for our old and poor, the list goes on.
Of course, for Republicans, in particular, and Americans, in general, Barack Obama’s presidency has not met its soaring expectations. Senator Marco Rubio’s crisp one-liner from the 2012 GOP convention, in which he borrows from “Hope and Change,” Obama’s illustrious 2008 campaign moniker, perhaps says it best: “Under Barack Obama, the only change is that hope is hard to find.” For millions of Americans, Senator Rubio’s words represent their reality, transcending mere political rhetoric. Over the last seven and a half years, the fissure between the wealthy and the poor has deepened exponentially. Divisions of race, class, and gender are as severe as ever. Simply put, Barack Obama has not unified America in as broad and swift a fashion as many Americans hoped.
On the whole, however, many Republicans, namely John McCain, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Mitt Romney, and Paul Ryan, have fervently worked to avoid displaying personal animosity toward the president, and instead hone in on policy disagreements.
Much to the dismay of those of us who still value cordiality and civility in our politics, however, manifold opponents of the president (the loudest and most vulgar of whom shout from their talk- radio pulpits) have expressed seemingly vitriolic personal disdain for our Commander-in-Chief. In other words, while American presidents and members of Congress have historically waged contentious battles, they usually muster the will to put personalities aside, and instead focus on working together to hash out differences on serious policy in order to deliver results.
In this spirit of bipartisanship, President Obama merits hearty praise for the considerable effort and political capital he has expended trying to shepherd the Trans-Pacific Partnership to passage. If passed, the TPP will guarantee stable American engagement in Asian trade. Notably, China is not included in the partnership, effectively edging the economic powerhouse out of this important trade alliance taking place right in its backyard.
By way of explanation, the White House’s trade officials report: “The TPP is a trade agreement with 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific, including Canada and Mexico that will eliminate over 18,000 taxes various countries put on Made-in-America products.” In general, the TPP’s ratification will prevent China from writing the trade rules for its Asian neighbors and their trading partners. In addition, the TPP, by design, places tremendous pressure on China to operate more transparently and, most saliently, to liberalize its economy. Negotiated over the past seven years, the agreement culminated for the United States with President Obama finalizing America’s involvement in the trade agreement.
With international commercial agreements like the TPP comes knowledge of foreign peoples, and Americans, including its presidential candidates, stand to learn a thing or ten about tolerance, decency, and moderation. Indeed, as Americans conduct international commerce, they become increasingly acquainted with foreigners and their mores, instilling respect and mutual appreciation on both sides of the transaction. Likewise, as the United States trades more, the U.S. and her business partners become more interdependent.
Needless to say, Republicans, Democrats, and independents ought to join President Obama, scores of mayors, governors, business leaders, and others in endorsing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This agreement will secure America’s interests in Asia, and by creating strong relationships between participating states help secure peace in our world.
At first, prominent Democrats, including Secretary Hillary Clinton, supported the agreement. However, when Democratic-Socialist firebrand Bernie Sanders rose in the polls, Secretary Clinton reversed her position. Meanwhile, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, one of the loudest critics of the agreements, similarly influenced his fellow candidates to soften – and, in some cases, reverse – their own support of the agreement.
Interestingly, Democrats have left their president by the wayside on this one. In fact, Republicans may be the ones who help save President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a signature item on our 44th president’s legacy agenda. Conservative columnist George Will notes the following: “Besides, progressivism's constant agenda is to expand the role of government and contract the role of markets in allocating wealth and opportunity. Republicans rescuing Obama's best idea would be an interesting coda to his presidency.”
Governor John Kasich, the Ohio Republican and former 2016 GOP presidential candidate, recently joined a bipartisan coalition for a meeting at the White House with President Obama. What a sight it was to see a man who only months ago vied to replace President Obama, who ran to prevent a “third” Obama term, stand behind the podium in the White House Press Room, alongside Democrats, imploring his party – and his country – to fight for the TPP’s implementation.
In 1956, while on leave from the Senate as he recovered from back surgery on account of injuries sustained in war, then-Senator John F. Kennedy published Profiles in Courage, a Pulitzer-Prize winning collection of political profiles. Since Kennedy’s senior year at Harvard, he expressed special interest in plucky politicians who defy convention, popular consensus, and their own constituents to do what is right. Throughout his hospitalization, Kennedy embarked on a writing a tribute to some of America’s most politically dauntless public servants. In the Kennedy Presidential Library’s telling, “the project resulted in the publication of Profiles in Courage, which focuses on the careers of eight Senators whom Kennedy felt had shown great courage under enormous pressure from their parties and their constituents.”
John Kasich, the big-hearted conservative governor of Ohio, deserves a political profile in courage. Moreover, on account of his magnanimity, good will, and stewardship of the America’s long and storied bipartisan political tradition, we should afford him our gratitude and admiration. Equally important, Barack Obama warrants his own laurels in this instance, owing to his courage in refusing to toe the party line by taking on his party. If more of our leaders followed Kasich and Obama’s sterling example, America would be a better place do business, and political service would reclaim its status as the noblest of professions.
According to contemporary standards, even the subtlest display of bipartisanship garners attention. Beyond that, extending an offer of a handshake at a candidate’s debate will engross the media for hours, leaving commentators shocked and mesmerized. Long gone are the days when exchanging pleasantries across the aisle was the norm. American writer and essayist Flannery O’Connor would lament the erosion of American political civility, too, for, as she observes in her famous short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a good man (or woman) is hard to find nowadays. That, by itself, is a sad commentary on American politics.
Despite this sad reality, though, John Kasich’s fearless individualism distinguishes him from his colleagues. Few political gurus, after all, would advise a sitting Republican governor to refuse to attend the Republican National Convention in general, not to mention one hosted in Cleveland, one of Ohio’s foremost cities. To add to Kasich’s focus on principle over party, we should honor him for embracing a key policy of the Obama administration in the midst of one of history’s most bitterly divided election cycles.
Moreover, we should, by contrast, expect and demand bipartisanship from elected officials and staffers serving at all levels of government. Simply put, John Kasich deserves the honor of a modern political profile in courage. Indeed, since he worked with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton to balance four federal budgets under Clinton’s Democratic administration, Kasich has stood out for his political moderation and zeal for working across the aisle. Thanks to public leaders like him, America’s proud bipartisan tradition endures.
(Overhead photo credit: Mary Calvert/Reuters)