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Bipartisan, post-partisan, just partisan

Bipartisanship has been used to describe so many things, it now means almost nothing.

If bipartisanship means soliciting ideas from the opposition party, President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) represent a refreshing change from their GOP predecessors, who expressed not a scintilla of interest in what any non-Republican thought about anything. In the few short weeks since this Congress began, these Democrats have sought out more input from Republicans than President Bush and his crowd did during their entire term in office.

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If bipartisanship means receiving Republican votes for legislation, it’s not in evidence — because Republicans chose as a matter of political strategy to deny President Obama that claim. Though why anyone’s definition of “bipartisanship” should be confined to votes in Congress, as opposed to the support the stimulus received from Republican governors and businesspeople, is altogether unclear.

If bipartisanship is equated with post-partisanship — the view that party no longer holds sway in American politics — it is simply wrongheaded. A brilliant historian, Alan Brinkley proves a lousy political analyst advocating this view in The Wall Street Journal, contrasting the days of yore, when “the party system was indeed the major driver of American political life,” with today, when “parties have increasingly little meaning to voters who, whatever their formal affiliations, cross party lines often and without hesitation.”

As a description of American political life, this is wholly inaccurate. An election in which 89 percent of Democrats voted for Barack Obama and 90 percent of Republicans for John McCain demolishes the argument, as does the fact that less than 10 percent of voters split their tickets in 2008.

Partisanship remains the pre-eminent structuring principle of our politics. Race surely matters, but 85 percent of white Democrats voted for Obama. Ideology matters, but 82 percent of conservative Democrats voted for the candidate Republicans castigated as the most liberal senator.

Moreover, the power of partisanship is not confined to the vital task of determining our votes.

Consider how it shapes attitudes toward an otherwise unknown individual. It is safe to say that 99 percent of Americans had never heard of Sarah Palin before John McCain selected her as his running mate. Yet before she had uttered more than two dozen public words, a CBS/New York Times poll found 48 percent of Republicans had a favorable impression of her. By contrast, only 6 percent of Democrats were favorable. The partisan impact: Knowing equally little about her, Republicans were eight times more likely to have a favorable view than Democrats and three times more likely to be positively disposed than independents.

Partisanship even has a dramatic impact on public perceptions of “facts.” Economic conditions seem like a question of objective reality unrelated to partisan politics. Far from it — adherents of the party in power in the White House often harbor a more positive outlook on the economy than those of the out-party. To take just one example among a myriad, in February 2004, 54 percent of Republicans were positive about the nation’s economy compared to 17 percent of Democrats. Democrats and Republicans inhabit the same national economy, and while they have different incomes, races and genders, the partisan differences in perception dwarf any demographic distinction.

There is even evidence that voters change their opinions on policy issues to bring them into consonance with what they learn about their party’s views. Republicans adamantly opposed rapprochement with China until Nixon opened relations, at which point GOPers promptly changed their minds. Partisanship has been shown to affect opinions on other issues ranging from abortion to Iraq.

For better or worse, we do not live in anything like a post-partisan world. In fact, partisanship remains a deeply ingrained feature of Americans’ political psyche.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.