Alex Massie states the case against bipartisanship and the Washington fixation on bipartisanship very well:
For that matter, what is bipartisanship? Why not much more than the means by which Washington covers its ass any time controversial legislation lumbers into view. It’s but a means of providing cover. If a sufficient number of Republicans and Democrats alike endorse a given bill or idea then neither party can be fairly held responsible for any of the consquences that might ensue. If it goes wrong both parties are culpable; in the unlikely event it works both parties claim their prizes.
As such you could almost suspect that the fetish for bipartisanship amounts to a conspiracy against the public, obscuring and eliminating dividing lines for the sole reason of making life more comfortable for Democrats and Republicans alike. It is, then, something that corrupts politics far more than it enhances it.
From the perspective of a party’s base, calls for bipartisanship from the other side are frequently just calls for capitulation to the other party’s position. When one party has completely committed itself to the complete defeat of a proposed piece of legislation, even bipartisanship of this sort is no longer possible. It is amusing to read Romney’s complaint that the bill did not have bipartisan support as the Massachusetts health care bill did, especially when the substance of the bill is broadly in line with the kind of bill that moderate Republicans such as Romney could and did support in Massachusetts. Of course, bipartisan support for the Massachusetts bill was more or less inevitable in a state where Republicans are a permanent minority in the legislature and the governor happened to be Republican.
Most of the other differences Romney cites as his excuse for opposing very similar federal legislation combine to create an indictment of Romney and what Romney did in Massachusetts. This is how Romney distinguishes between the two:
We [in Massachusetts] didn’t raise taxes. We did not at the same time cut Medicare and expect our seniors to have to pay for all this. We didn’t do what President Obama’s doing, which is putting controls on our system of premiums for private insurance companies.
In other words, Romney’s position is that the federal bill does too much to pay for the entitlement it is creating and it is trying to do too much to contain insurance costs. Far better to be even more fiscally irresponsible while doing nothing on cost containment! According to Romney, that is the “conservative” position to take.
This is part of what has been so maddening about the stream of articles and editorials demanding that the administration be more “centrist” in its policies. Any reasonable description of what Congress just passed this week would have to acknowledge that it is a very “centrist” bill. Anyone who has been reading this blog for very long knows that I don’t regard that as a good thing. “Centrism” is the consistent pursuit of shoring up and reinforcing the status quo and serving the entrenched interests of existing powerful institutions. Even though the health care bill definitely fits this description, which is why many progressives are unhappy with it, “centrist” politicians and pundits are confident that there is always room for more accommodation with whatever the status quo happens to be.
What is unusual in the health care debate is that the normal cooperation of the two parties in the conspiracy Massie mentions did not come to pass. Unlike the Iraq war, the immigration bill and the financial sector bailout, the legislation did not win the support of leaders from both parties and did not have the overwhelming endorsement of the political class. In the end, this is what critics mean when they say that the health care legislation was not passed on a bipartisan basis: it was one of those rare major issues that split the political class between absolute defenders of the status quo and people who are expanding and entrenching the existing system. What is striking about the lack of bipartisanship is that the two positions are not that far removed from one another, and the bipartisan Washington consensus that normally forges a worst-of-both-worlds compromise broke apart.