Bipartisanship has a better name than it should: As often as not, it yields an anodyne moderation that is unequal to the tasks facing the nation. Last year, President Obama scaled back the stimulus bill in hopes of attracting GOP support (he got none), when we now realize the stimulus needed to be larger and longer. The fabled 9/11 Report was produced by a bipartisan consensus and was one of the most internally contradictory texts ever produced. People confuse bipartisanship with consensus, with acting in the national interest, when in fact it can merely result in even less useful or effective policies that conflate the interests of the two parties.
Still, of all the many worries we should entertain about the country’s political life, the greatest is surely the general loss of confidence in government per se, the sense that government is some alien force obnoxious to our lives and interests, the idea that Washington is incapable of accomplishing anything good. This profoundly anti-democratic (small ‘d’) sensibility is first and foremost a moral failing, trusting in impersonal forces like "the market" or "science," rather than in our human capacity for self-governance. And so even if bipartisanship is only a facsimile of consensus, and not the genuine article, a facsimile is better than nothing.
And, so, the swearing in of Senator Scott Brown yesterday represents a sign of hope for the country, and especially for the Democrats. Yes, in the short term, the Dems took the hit. But, going forward, Republicans cannot escape responsibility for governance and Democrats know going in to every debate that they must bring along some GOP Senators. As well, when you have five moderate Republicans on board, you do not have to jump to Sen. Lieberman’s mood swings. The resulting policies may or may not be improved in terms of delivering health care, prosecuting terrorists or jump starting the economy. But, the underlying concern, the concern to show that government can accomplish something on behalf of the citizens who elected it, that will be strengthened.
Senator Brown, of course, will stand for re-election some day and if he likes being a Senator he is likely to be mindful of the progressive views of many Bay State voters, especially on social issues. It will be curious to see how the GOP treats him: They love him today, but this is a pro-choice Republican who has made his peace with gay marriage. And, he posed nude for a magazine. This is not a Jerry Falwell Republican. And, he voted for a health care bill in Massachusetts that has many of the features to which the Republicans object in the current reform effort at the national level. Sen. Brown needs to be careful lest he find himself as the second Senator from Massachusetts to be for something before he was against it.
Maybe the prospect of another snow storm has my thoughts turning in decidedly Augustinian ways this morning. To regain confidence in government seems like such a small thing, and bipartisanship seems like such a small means towards that admittedly small end. But, it is not a small thing after all. It is the last myth of Reaganism, the myth that government is not the solution to our nation’s ills but the problem. The myth is in the participle. Reagan was right that government is not "the" solution, but it may be "a" solution. It may be "a" problem but it is not "the" problem. Whatever else it is, government is a creation of ourselves and will be as good or as bad as we insist that it be. The new Senator from Massachusetts, like the still new President from Illinois, are in their positions of governance because we sent them there.
Michael Sean Winters