Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Bipartisanship without substance is meaningless

By Philip Zelikow My colleague on this blog, Peter Feaver, has drawn an analogy. He compares Obama’s outreach to Republicans now to support him on the stimulus package with Bush’s outreach to Democrats in 2005-06 to support him on Iraq.  So far, Obama has won goodwill but no votes. Bush won neither goodwill nor votes, ...

By Philip Zelikow

My colleague on this blog, Peter Feaver, has drawn an analogy. He compares Obama's outreach to Republicans now to support him on the stimulus package with Bush's outreach to Democrats in 2005-06 to support him on Iraq.  So far, Obama has won goodwill but no votes. Bush won neither goodwill nor votes, so Peter wonders whether these exercises are worth much. He kinda thinks so, because he is a believer in good government, but he wonders.

But bipartisanship is about substance, not just form. You have to step up to the substance. This is what FDR did when he brought the opposition party's Secretary of State (Stimson) and the opposition party's VP candidate (Knox) into the very heart of his cabinet and formed a national unity government in June 1940. The Truman administration followed some of those precedents before the bipartisan fabric was irretrievably torn in 1949-50. Those moves reflected substantive policy choices, not just show.

By Philip Zelikow

My colleague on this blog, Peter Feaver, has drawn an analogy. He compares Obama’s outreach to Republicans now to support him on the stimulus package with Bush’s outreach to Democrats in 2005-06 to support him on Iraq.  So far, Obama has won goodwill but no votes. Bush won neither goodwill nor votes, so Peter wonders whether these exercises are worth much. He kinda thinks so, because he is a believer in good government, but he wonders.

But bipartisanship is about substance, not just form. You have to step up to the substance. This is what FDR did when he brought the opposition party’s Secretary of State (Stimson) and the opposition party’s VP candidate (Knox) into the very heart of his cabinet and formed a national unity government in June 1940. The Truman administration followed some of those precedents before the bipartisan fabric was irretrievably torn in 1949-50. Those moves reflected substantive policy choices, not just show.

The Bush administration of 2005-06 did not step up to the burden of real bipartisanship. True, Bush had announced a new Iraq strategy in the fall of 2005. I was very involved in that. But the core of the new strategy was immediately attacked, publicly and privately, by Bush’s own Secretary of Defense. As a new SIGIR report briefly observes:

The White House had issued its National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, but the Department of State and USAID seemed unable to follow through with the Clear-Hold-Build strategy it prescribed. A lack of capacity was only part of the problem. Disagreements continued among the President’s advisors on whether the U.S. military should assume a different counterinsurgency posture.

If the Bush White House really wanted to change the partisan dynamics in 2005-06, it needed to put at least three substantive moves on the table:

  • Admit, for real, that the current strategy wasn’t working (which, yes, would allow the Democrats to score political points);
  • Change leadership, starting at a minimum with Secretary Rumsfeld, who by that time could no longer be part of any bipartisan approach; and
  • Seriously engage at least some Democrats (like Carl Levin and Jack Reed) in the substantive development of the new strategy.

All of these ideas were repeatedly considered in the Bush administration in 2005 and 2006. None were deployed to effect. The Iraq Study Group, an idea spurred on by Congressman Frank Wolf — to his very great credit — was already seen in fall 2005 as a possible vehicle. But the Group’s formation and timetable were then badly delayed and much of its potential value was lost (that’s another story).

One can spell out what the Democrats would have needed to bring to the table to make any of this work, and the proxy problems on their side. In any case, their readiness was not really tested. The Bush administration was not prepared to make the substantive moves needed to open a window for truly bipartisan action on the war. Good arguments can be adduced (can’t admit failure, Dems will undermine war anyway, etc.). Maybe others will judge that they were right. At the time I thought it was a mistake.

Which brings us back to the present: President Obama and the fiscal stimulus in 2009. To get a bipartisan deal, both sides have to be willing to deal on substance. That means some folks on both sides need to "know their own mind," and have proxy power from a critical mass of their people. I don’t know if either of those conditions are present.

A "more spending" versus "more tax cuts" ideological argument will be sterile. And war whoops in killing a few stragglers from the wagon train (aha, we got that National Mall lawnmower!) are a symptom of limp politics. The administration will win. What will be the long-term cost? All the arguments I put forward last month, and Phil Levy has also been making on this site, are — like many other such comments — looking better (sadly) with each passing day. There may be some uneasy folks on the inside. Smart Republicans and Democrats can develop a plan to recover the center of this debate.  The ingredients are out there.

It’s not too late for real bipartisanship. But it must be about substance, not just shows of civility. The Senate debate is showing some encouraging signs — like renewed priority attention to the financial crisis. One reason I posted a straw man alternative approach is to suggest an illustration of how Republicans, and Democrats, might articulate a full-bodied centrist and internationalist approach to a bipartisan bargaining process.

Philip Zelikow holds professorships in history and governance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He also worked on international policy as a U.S. government official in five administrations.

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