The big debate this week, certainly in presidential campaign press releases and conference calls, centers around which candidate is more bipartisan. Both candidates claim it's them. Pundits, inevitably, have their own opinions.

Marc Ambinder argues that "Obama's record is solid, but he simply hasn't risked as much as McCain has." Obama has worked with conservatives to achieve more or less liberal ends (ethics reform, healthcare in Illinois, working to curtail nuclear proliferation with Dick Lugar) while McCain has worked with liberals to achieve more or less liberal ends (campaign finance reform, environmental bills, etc.). Because McCain's compromises irritated his own party, Ambinder suggests, he's the more courageous one.

I'm not sure why this brave but incoherent bipartisanship is so highly valued. Isn't a good politician one who works with the opposition to achieve their own ends? Obama appears relatively skilled at convincing conservatives to support a liberal policy agenda, while McCain seems good at gracefully conceding to liberal priorities in such away that he looks tough and independent (often, he can serve special interests at the same time). A liberal would certainly prefer Obama's leadership. A conservative wouldn't be too impressed with McCain. A true independent might wonder how coherent McCain's ideas actually are.

This fetish for "courageous" bipartisanship comes from the media's well-known dislike of partisanship. In part, they see partisanship as a block on effective governance, which can be true. But more often than not, it's simply much more difficult to cover substantive policy debates than to write process stories, an incentive for the press to reward conventional wisdom and centrist compromise. But, as Michael Kinsley writes here, partisan ideology is necessary for effective and coherent policymaking. Some bickering is a natural result, and there's nothing wrong with it as long as it doesn't get too out of hand.

--Tim Fernholz

You may also like