Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Being Partisan without Partisan Blinders

What is best for our nation? What is best for our society? What is best for our planet?

In a complex world, there is no one simple answer to such questions. World views can help us shape how we approach solving the world's problems, but those views can also blind us to solutions that others may offer.

If you consider yourself a Republican, you may be convinced that most Democrats are more interested in seeing Republicans fail than in working across the aisle to solve problems. If you consider yourself a Democrat, you may be convinced that most Republicans are more interested in seeing Democrats fail than in working across the aisle to solve problems. Many Independents and supporters of third parties are convinced that partisan blindness in both parties has stalemated Washington's ability to solve anything.

We partisans are often guilty as charged. But not always. It is possible to be partisan without partisan blinders. But it takes discipline.

It is easier to remove the blinders in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. I can honestly say that in the days following 9/11 seven years ago, I was looking to our President - to MY President - with great hope that he would make good decisions, based on sound reasoning and a long view of the future. The polls which showed Bush's approval climb to 90% in the aftermath of that crisis are testament to the fact that most Democrats were NOT wanting Republicans to fail at that frightening moment in history. Even among the 10% who continued to express disapproval of Bush, I am quite confident that a large fraction did not WANT him to screw up. 90% approval did not mean that the country was momentarily mostly Republican, but rather that we were Americans first. It was an expression of hope that we would rise above partisanship.

Within two or three years after 2001, we returned to a state of deep division, and now seven years later we remain largely divided on where to go from here, in spite of having two candidates who both profess the intent to put country ahead of party. There have been times when I confess to wishing that a particular (usually Republican, but sometimes bipartisan) economic policy would fail, because I felt so certain that it was part of a larger policy direction which I saw as directly harmful to large segments of the populace. It's rather like hoping that your child who has an obvious gambling addiction does not have a run of luck luring him into taking foolish risks with larger portions of his nest egg.

In the arena of foreign policy, however, I have never been so cynical. As convinced as I was in 2003 that invading Iraq was an awful blunder, I truly prayed that those weapons would be found, Saddam would be toppled to the cheers of Iraqis, and order would be restored to Iraq in a fairly democratic fashion. I feared with good reason that it would not be so neat, but what transpired eclipsed even my fears. When the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were revealed in 2004, I was deeply saddened, but still hoped that Rumsfeld would quickly resign or be dismissed, the policies which nurtured such atrocities would be unambiguously repudiated by the Bush administration, some of our international reputation would be restored, and then surely we would elect a Democrat to the Presidency to restore it further. When I and many fellow Democrats were calling on my party in 2007 to be tougher about funding the war at current levels and demanding a commitment to a withdrawal process, and Bush responded instead (after the Democrats' capitulation) with a plan for a surge, I thought that was foolish. I believed it was too little too late, but nonetheless, I hoped in spite of my fears that it would work. Honestly, I have been relieved at the reduction in violence that has resulted since, certainly in part due to the surge. Though there is plenty of evidence that serious political problems remain unresolved in Iraq, the resultant reduction in violence may put us in a better position to draw down our overstressed troops. I am happy with good news, even if it may be spun politically to the advantage of those who advocate policies that I disagree with.

You can always find cynics or partisans who are so blinded by their own world view that they will spin ANY news to the advantage of their ideology. That is true of any party or any world view, so the existence of these cynics is NOT evidence either against or for whatever ideology they are trying to advance. Often we focus on the cynics or the demagogues or the corrupt politicians as if they prove the wrongness of their side, rather than recognizing that we should instead debate the issues directly. Often that focus is cynically intentional, due to the historic success of straw man arguments in lieu of solid analysis.

Partisanship is not evil in and of itself. I still believe that government ought to play an important role in regulating industry to protect the concerns of employees, consumers, and our environment. I believe my party is more likely to advocate such a role than is the Republican Party. But when Republicans and conservatives counsel that we must pay heed that regulation does not cripple the natural ability of markets to provide goods to consumers at competitive prices, we should see the truth in that and be willing to compromise accordingly, and make sure that new regulations are not too onerous or restrictive.

On a whole host of issues, from civil liberties - to foreign diplomacy - to a healthy partnership between science and government - to the rights of workers to engage in collective bargaining - and so on, I am more inclined to take a more liberal position and agree with Democrats more often. But that doesn't mean that I cannot also respect reasoned conservative cautions against excesses which might give too much authority to government or honor the rights of some to the detriment or danger of others. I am proud of my liberal values, but that doesn't mean that I don't have conservative values as well. Bush and Republican Congresses of the past have angered me often by their dismissive disdain for liberal values which I cherish, but they have angered ME as well for their abandonment of some of the best conservative values which they supposedly espouse.

This year we face a choice between candidates who both claim to represent a break from the partisan politics of the past. I will be heartily endorsing and arguing in favor of Obama whose speeches and writing eloquently and closely reflect my own beliefs and values. I will also be pointing to reasons to be suspicious that McCain and Palin will not be likely to become the change agents they claim, as they surround themselves with lobbyists and Republican partisans with heavy ties to politics as usual, and often when researched, real political corruption.

But let me also here confess to two things which my fellow partisan Democrats will cringe to read. I have no crystal ball assuring me that if he is elected that Obama won't capitulate to forces that honor the status quo, the influence of big business, and the most powerful lobbying groups of the traditional Democrats. In fact I am pretty certain he won't be able to completely avoid such influences, as we can already see in his pragmatic inclusion of advisors suggesting some of that. But the extent to which his campaign has been financed by many different individuals gives me real hope that he will be able to chart new ground in breaking with lockstep adherence to DLC initiatives or the politics of the past.

And secondly, as much as I worry otherwise, if McCain is elected you may be assured that I will be praying that his ascendancy to an executive role will free him to truly break with the past, root out corruption in government, return to his previous positions against torture, and against irresponsible tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans, and challenge his own party where they are unduly influenced by money. In terms of policy positions, I will necessarily be disappointed, because McCain will be aligned with positions I believe to be flawed, but if he is true to his "maverick" persona, and a Democratic Congress can act as a balance, that would truly be a step forward from the Bush years.

So I have risked having my own words used against me. For some that is a cardinal sin of politics. But I do so for this reason: I ask readers of this column or any other to bear in mind that every writer will tend to reveal that which supports their beliefs and not their doubts. The person behind those words may be an ideologue incapable of seeing any alternate view point, but maybe they are not. Perhaps that writer who seeks to convince that Obama is a disaster waiting to happen, or that McCain is a sure ticket to World War III, actually hopes they are wrong should the candidate of their fears be elected. In this post, let me assure all that I will hope for the best regardless of whom we elect this November. In future posts, I may not sound so much that way.

Fellow liberals, conservatives, libertarians, communitarians, greens, Americans, and humans, Peace be with you all, and may wisdom guide our electorate and our future leaders.


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