Sunday, May 25, 2008

Care About Issues? Be Partisan!

That was my suggested headline, but the editor chose differently.

I got two emails today, one from a Republican who appreciated the column, but said that of course Democrats were more corrupt and Republicans better at policing their own; I asked him who the Democratic equivalents, here in Arizona, would be to Fife Symington and Rick (I’m Still a Congressman) Renzi.

The other was from an angry GOP ‘winger, who said that of course I’m what’s wrong with politics today, politicians should do the right thing and that should be the end of it. I wrote back that I strongly disagreed with him positions on education, abortion, and probably almost everything else, and under my formulation, we’re having a debate about politics and we disagree. Under his “do what’s right” philosophy, he gets to decide what’s “right” and we’re having an argument about morality. So how does that improve public discourse to go from thinking your opponents are mistaken to thinking your opponents are evil? Haven’t heard back yet.

Other background on partisanship (and why the ideogolgically diverse, or if you prefer, inconsistent, parties are a historical accident) is here, here, and here. I'm with Yglesias on this one.

East Valley Tribune, May 25, 2008

Last week I endured some oh-so-soothing talk by candidates for elected office, both Democrat and Republican, of bipartisanship, reaching across the aisle, and finding common-sense solutions instead of engaging in pointless partisan bickering. Heck, I used to talk like that, too.

Candidates spout this airy, nonpartisan blather because voters absolutely love it. It appeals to our vanity. We’re savvy judges of character, not fooled by labels. But partisanship and bickering lets voters send large, harder-to-ignore messages -- far better than deciding that you like this guy and that woman, at least until they do something of which you don’t approve.

Unfortunately, today “partisan” is an epithet. Nobody admits to voting a straight-party ticket anymore; there still may be “yellow dog Democrats,” but just try to find one. You may be a Republican, but you always vote for the best person -- or you convince yourself that however dubious the GOP candidate, the Democrat is worse. (It worked for George W. Bush, right?)

You’re independent, even if you’re not an Independent. You’re not a bickerer. You’d never be disagreeable, or try getting your own way without caring about what your opponent thinks, or gets. Just ask your spouse to confirm that last part, OK?

Americans consider themselves pragmatists, interested in real solutions to real problems (as opposed to fake solutions to made-up problems). “Real people” are honest; politicians are corrupt. Mr. Smith went to Washington and with nothing more than honesty and common sense completely changed the U.S. Senate. (Never mind that his appropriation for the summer camp was -- gasp! -- an earmark.)

But if everyone is a pragmatist, who are the people who care about gay marriage, abortion, or taxes? Who’s voting on the basis of a candidate’s religion, windsurfing, or flag pin?

And what about those issues where there isn’t a solution at all (much less a pragmatic, centrist one), but rather an attempt to fix a problem that may or may not work? Or where your “problem” is my “profit stream?”

The next time a candidate denounces partisanship, consider the last time we had a bipartisan, across-the-board consensus, where politicians put party aside and did what they thought best for the entire country: We invaded Iraq.

The decision to go to war wasn’t unanimous -- but we managed to marginalize those who argued against. It seemed like everybody who mattered agreed, because we ignored those who doubted the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq, or who weighed the costs and benefits differently (and, as it turned out, more accurately). We called those folks “extremists” and listened instead to the “sensible center.” Sensible -- but wrong.

So instead of looking for ways to avoid acrimony, maybe we need divisiveness and partisanship. We should have noisy debate before big decisions. And the greater party unity we’re seeing these days gives voters clearer choices. You don’t need to research each candidate or do exhaustive personality profiles; you can vote on your key issues, knowing that each party has staked out a contrasting position. If you think we need to stay in Iraq, vote for Republican candidates. If you think we need to get out, vote Democratic.

At the state level, which matters more to you, lowering taxes or improving schools? On transportation, do you prefer lower taxes, or lower commute times? When voting for state legislature, decide which issues matter the most, which general direction you prefer, and then vote accordingly. If you prefer lower taxes, vote R; if you prefer improving schools or lowering commute times, vote D. Pick an issue; the Democrats lean one way, the Republicans the other. As a voter, you should demand greater partisanship and partisan discipline so you can vote rationally, without having to write a term paper on every issue or race.

Increased partisanship and party unity mean you don’t have to worry about personalities. Instead, you can vote based on -- wait for it -- issues. And isn’t that what you say you want?

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