Financial Times

America Must Learn to Love Consensus

For the Democratic party’s most energetic supporters, consensus and bipartisanship have become dirty words. In this, the party’s activists are following the lead of the Bush administration, which feels just as strongly about compromise with opponents. But it is a mistake for the left, just as it was for the right – as a matter both of intellectual vitality and of hard-nosed political calculation – to indulge this aversion to doing business with the enemy.

“Bush started it,” goes the thinking. So he did. George W. Bush was elected president, if you recall, as a “compassionate conservative”. His record as governor of Texas, he insisted, showed he could work productively with both sides: it was all about getting things done. On top of that, he won the election of 2000, putting it charitably, because of an anomaly in the way the US adds up the votes in its presidential contests and, putting it less charitably, through outright theft. All the more reason, any disinterested observer would have said, for him to govern with restraint from the centre. He subsequently embarked on one of the most divisive and partisan periods of rule in modern American history, disdainful of co-operating not only with his political opponents, but even with his allies in Congress.

That was because everything changed on September 11 2001, the White House would say. Quite why the events of 9/11 mandated White House intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, to take just one instance, or the president’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, or for any number of other initiatives aimed solely at gratifying the Republican party’s social conservative base, would be difficult to say. Whatever the reasons, the president reneged on his promise to govern from the centre and made a virtue of brutal partisanship. “And now,” Democrats say, “you expect us to play nice?” The rage is understandable.

It harmonises dangerously with a couple of other ideas to produce an even stronger instinctive rejection of centrist politics. The Bush administration has redefined “middle” to the left’s disadvantage: find the mean of where Republicans and Democrats now are, and you still end up with a kind of tepid conservatism.

More than this, it is argued, splitting the difference is wrong in principle: the truth is the truth. Many young (and not so young) Democratic activists are animated by an adolescent zeal for authenticity. If you are angry, just keep screaming in your opponent’s face. Let the spittle fly. It is the only honest thing to do.

The liberal blogosphere reserves its bitterest contempt not for the loathsome battalions of the right – Bush loyalists may be criminals and sociopaths, according to the left, but at least they are true to their beliefs – but rather for the centrists and pragmatists in politics and the media who apparently believe nothing, and who in their intellectual and moral depravity affect to see both sides of an argument. For that, there can be no defence.

This militant purism is intellectually debilitating, because it closes one’s mind to counter-arguments – and counter-arguments are what keep you sharp. Aside from this, what Democrats most need to remember is that the current administration – with all its authenticity and reluctance to compromise – is a failure. Even if the next president, against the odds, is a Republican, many of this administration’s signature policies are going to be abandoned and repudiated. This hardly recommends partisan intensity as a measure of political wisdom. Success in politics is not about ruling while you briefly have the power; it is about what you leave behind. To entrench a great change, you need to bring the centre round to supporting it.

Universal healthcare is the perfect example. If a Democratic administration can finally bring this about in the US, the reform will be remembered for decades as a signal achievement and will never be rolled back. It is an issue on which, given a willingness to compromise, the support of the centre can be engaged.

The new plans of the Democratic presidential contenders all build on the existing private-insurance system, rather than (as many Democratic activists would still prefer) aiming to dismantle it at once and shift to a single-payer “socialised” system. That is, their plans have much in common with reforms introduced by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and proposed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. Republicans and Democrats can do business on this issue and achieve a great and long-overdue reform. If Democrats take the lead and are occupying the White House at the time, they will get the credit. Bipartisanship is good tactics.

Pursuing consensus for its own sake is wrong, and deal-cutting politicians certainly need to be watched. Bipartisanship has given the US earmarks (trinkets for local interests smuggled into new laws), redistricting (gerrymandered constituencies) and other assaults on the public interest.

Pointed debate over principled differences is healthy. But you need some measure of bipartisanship – at least, a suspension of the view that people who disagree with you are evil – to have even that.

The main thing is, limited co-operation among politicians who disagree about big things can still be productive. It strengthens the centre at the expense of the extremes, and that is usually desirable. It favours real debate over the mindless stroking of partisan prejudices. It addresses the view that what goes on in Washington has more in common with professional wrestling than with good government. And voters like it.