Team Of Rivals

November 20, 2008

There’s been a lot of talk of late of Obama appointing a “team of rivals” for his cabinet. The term comes from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals, which is now #4 on Amazon’s list of best-selling nonfiction books – right behind Obama’s two books (and Malcolm Gladwell at #1).

It seems to have been taken as an article of faith of late that Obama needs to appoint rivals, if not outright enemies, to his cabinet, in order to achieve both (a) effective governance, and (b) popular legitimacy. There have been, however (and thankfully), a few sober voices out there expressing some objections to the idea. At NPR, “Madeleine Brand talks to Civil War historian Matthew Pinsker, who says Lincoln’s idea to surround himself with political rivals didn’t work out so well.” In the NY Times, James Oakes asks, “What’s So Special About A Team Of Rivals?” His answer:

“There is little doubt that Abraham Lincoln was a great president. But not much of what made him great can be discerned in his appointment of a contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas to his cabinet.”

Meanwhile, Dday at Hullabaloo was a bit less than generous with praise for Goodwin’s work:

“But Obama is talking about this ‘fully bipartisan government,’ and he’s even exploring options for Republicans in major posts, and that ought to have you worried if he’s basing that on a work of what amounts to fiction.”

Calling Team Of Rivals a work of “fiction” is likely going a little overboard, but nonetheless, I am very skeptical (to say the least) of the merits of appointing rivals, never mind enemies, to the cabinet. And I am less than impressed by the degree to which the Washington Beltway crowd has been taken with the idea, to the point that it seems to have become the received wisdom.

Over and over again, we hear that Obama must ‘reach across the aisle.’ Bipartisanship is touted as one of the highest political virtues. Reconciliation with characters such as Joe Lieberman and John McCain is frequently praised as representative of those virtues. In fact, Obama himself has repeatedly pledged to act with bipartisanship, and the two candidates during the campaign competed over who had reached most across the aisle during their careers.

I say to all this, who gives a flying fuck at a rat’s ass about bipartisanship? And what, exactly, is the source of this obsession in this country with reaching across the aisle to one’s political enemies? I share Glenn Greenwald’s distaste and criticism for bipartisanship. I also share his view that the claims of recent partisan fighting in Washington are not just greatly overblown but outright imaginary:

“Where is the evidence of the supposed partisan wrangling that we hear so much about? Just examine the question dispassionately. Look at every major Bush initiative, every controversial signature Bush policy over the last eight years, and one finds virtually nothing but massive bipartisan support for them — the Patriot Act (original enactment and its renewal); the invasion of Afghanistan; the attack on, and ongoing occupation of, Iraq; the Military Commissions Act (authorizing enhanced interrogation techniques, abolishing habeas corpus, and immunizing war criminals); expansions of warrantless eavesdropping and telecom immunity; declaring part of Iran’s government to be ‘terrorists’; our one-sided policy toward Israel; the $700 billion bailout; The No Child Left Behind Act, ‘bankruptcy reform,’ and on and on.
Most of those were all enacted with virtually unanimous GOP support and substantial, sometimes overwhelming, Democratic support: the very definition of ‘bipartisanship.’ That’s just a fact.”

For some reason, it is more acceptable in this country that campaigns become bitterly fought contests over personality than that day-to-day politics be a struggle between competing ideas. There is an obsession with the ‘middle,’ the ‘center,’ the Joe-the-Sixpack-Plumber-median-voter-regular-guy who just wants good old practical policies – fixin’ up in Washington – rather than actual politics.

But there ARE competing ideas in this country. The Republicans and the Democrats have VASTLY different ideas on the social safety net, government regulation and oversight, affirmative action, public education, public transport, infrastructure, trade, gay rights, and foreign policy, just to list a few of the most important things. On some of these ideas it is possible to compromise. On others, less so. The Bush administration wanted to privatize Social Security (imagine if they had succeeded), and it is a Republican article of faith that the New Deal was a failure and must be rolled back. Democrats for the most part wish to expand these social programs. The Democrats want to introduce the kind of universal healthcare system that every other wealthy country on the planet enjoys, while the Republicans are dead set against it. So where exactly is the place for bipartisanship on these issues??

I am NOT saying that Democrats should not compromise or should not negotiate with Republicans – that is absurd. Bargaining and give-and-take is part and parcel to politics. But that is QUITE DIFFERENT from what the pundit class means by bipartisanship. It is one thing to strike a deal with rivals to achieve one’s ends, it is another to appoint John McCain as Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security. One is good politics, the other is idiocy.

I understand that a large portion of the country voted for McCain, and that there is some fairness in their views being seriously considered by the new president. I certainly did not enjoy watching Bush represent the right wing for 8 years without any concern for the rest of us. However, if elections are going to mean anything at all, when a party comes into power, its first priority has to be to further its own agenda. To make lasting change and to enjoy a popular mandate, there must be concessions and bargains. But that has do be done within a framework of political rivalry, in which negotiations take place but nonetheless the lines between the parties are drawn. And if the Republicans don’t like it, they can try to put Sarah Palin in the White House in 2012.

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