Wednesday, January 2, 2008

"Partisan" Is Not Necessarily a Dirty Word

1: a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance
- The first definition of "partisan" offered by Merriam-Webster

On the last day of 2007, the U.S. Senate held a 12-second session with exactly one member of the body present (Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed). No votes were taken, no speeches were made, and no lobbyist money was pressed into waiting palms (at least none that were visible to the media).

Considering that Congress's approval rating makes Barry Bonds look like Mr. Popular, I'm sure many Americans would think that nothing could be accomplished by the Senate in 12 seconds, since nothing much gets done when their representatives are there in full force. But those 12 seconds were vital, at least for anyone who thinks that the Bush administration has done a terrible job of appointing candidates to office (from "Brownie" botching the handling of Hurricane Katrina to Alberto Gonzalez disgracing the office of the Attorney General).

As we know, the one thing Bush hates most in the world (even more than anything that prevents prisons from executing people) is having anyone, even the U.S. Congress carrying out its constitutional duties, tell him what to do. He is the "decider," after all, and if people don't agree with him, well, they should keep it to themselves and stay out of his way. Otherwise, he'll paint them as not supporting the troops (if the issue is war-related) or partisan (on domestic questions) and try and power forward to get what he wants, no matter how few people in the country agree with him.

We can only guess how much Bush hates it that, with the Democrats controlling the Senate, he actually has to get someone's permission to appoint a candidate to office.

Of course, when Congress isn't in session, Bush has access to a loophole. During these breaks in the legislative calendar, he is constitutionally permitted to make "recess appointments" without getting approval from the Senate. It's a strategy he's used before, even when choosing a position as important as U.N. Ambassador.

Which leads us back to Reed's quickie Senate action, which is part of a series of such meetings designed to keep the Senate technically in session so Bush can't make any recess appointments. According to a article, the person the Democrats most want to keep from office is
Steven Bradbury, who Bush has nominated to be the permanent head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. Why are the Democrats so against Mr. Bradbury's appointment? Well, it seems that while working for the Justice Department, he wrote two memorandums defending the use of torture. Bradbury, a former law clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, amusingly once testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that President Bush, when interpreting case law, is "always right." If you don't believe me, you can watch it here.

The tactic employed by the Senate Democrats to prevent the recess appointments will inevitably bring charges that they they are acting in a partisan way, with the implication being that such activity is a bad thing. Coincidentally, also on Monday, the New York Times ran a story claiming that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a man who has done time as a Democrat, Republican and independent, is closer to running for president. The article describes a meeting in Oklahoma this Sunday and Monday that will bring together "elder statesmen" Democrats and Republicans, such as former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and David Boren (D-Okla.) and current Senator Chuck Hegel (R-Neb.), describing the agenda of the meeting as an effort "to renounce partisan gridlock." The speculation is that Bloomberg could team with Hegel or Nunn (or some other traditionally moderate politician) for a centrist, third-party run for the White House in November.

It seems to me there are two issues in play here that have somehow been intertwined together more than would be necessary or beneficial: centrism and partisanism.

On the one hand, there is the idea that a majority of Americans sit closer to the center of the political road than on either the left or right sides of the ideological spectrum. As such, some have argued (like the group gathering in Oklahoma) that it would make sense to promote a candidate that speaks to this group in the center, rather than forcing these moderates to cast their lots with liberals or conservatives with whom they don't always agree. I certainly have no problem with a centrist party. Many European countries have moderate parties that sit successfully between more traditionally liberal and conservative entities, and having a moderate party in the United States may not be a bad thing.

But I'm not sure how the idea of centrism got wrapped up with the idea of fighting against partisanship. At the risk of stating the obvious, isn't this group moving towards creating a third-party run for the White House, by definition, advocating that its ticket win the election? And in doing so, won't it have to distinguish itself from the Democrats and Republicans it is running against? It seems to me that the leaders of this campaign will be every bit "firm adherent(s) to a party, faction, cause, or person" (the first half of the Merriam-Webster definition of "partisan"), which, inevitably, will lead to the same "blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance" to the cause (the second half of the Merriam-Webster definition) in which they accuse the Democrats and Republicans of taking part; at least if the third party wants to win (if the Republicans "swift boated" John Kerry, I can only imagine and cringe at what they'd do to a divorced, wealthy, Jewish, New York Mayor with a history of going on vacations with his girlfriend).

And being a moderate doesn't mean that on individual issues, a candidate or voter takes a dispassionate, centrist position. Rather, to many Americans, being a moderate means holding some views that are traditionally seen as conservative and others that are historically more liberal. Bloomberg is a great example of this approach. He's pro-choice, but believes in fiscal conservatism. So if Bloomberg passionately defends the right to choose or the need for lower taxes, is he being partisan to his new party? After all, he's not taking a middle ground on those issues, right?

In fact, many issues are yes-or-no, black-or-white, with no real middle ground. What is a moderate position on abortion? If you believe the procedure is murder, nothing short of a ban will satisfy you. If you believe in a woman's right to control her own body, nothing short of full freedom to terminate a pregnancy will satisfy you. A position that tries to find ground in the middle will, in fact, just anger both sides.

Or, to look at a more pressing, immediate question, what is a moderate position on Bush's appointment of Bradbury to his Justice Department position? If you believe (as I do) that the Bush administration's embrace of torture has been one of the most horrifying, damaging and morally repugnant actions taken by an American president since the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, what middle ground can be found? And, more importantly, why would you want or need middle ground? My outrage over the U.S. employing torture techniques cannot be assuaged by some kind of middle position. In my heart, torture is wrong, and nothing short of a ban will satisfy me.

Which brings me back to my point on partisanship. In the world of sports, we have allegiances to teams that, beyond geography, are primarily irrational. I pull for the Yankees and despise the Mets, live and die with the Islanders and wish nothing but heartbreak for the Rangers, and support Arsenal and root for whoever is playing against Manchester United and Chelsea. But there is nothing inherent in the Yankees, the Islanders or Arsenal that I am supporting. You can certainly argue that, in these cases, I am demonstrating "blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance(s)."

But when it comes to politics and questions of who should govern and how they should govern, parties stand for ideologies. They are not just empty vessels like sports teams. A small section of the population, usually found to be in the mid-thirties, percentage-wise, still thinks Bush is doing a good job, while the rest of us do not. Is this a partisan question? A majority of Americans oppose torture, but Bush wants the U.S. Congress to officially endorse a torture advocate for an important position in the Justice Department. Is that partisan, too?

Standing up for a belief system is not "blind, prejudiced or unreasoning." It goes to fundamental questions about our society. When Republicans accuse Democrats of being "partisan" for supporting an issue, it's an empty charge. But if that's the way the Republicans want to play it, fine, I am happy to be partisan, because it means I'm standing up for my vision of what my country is and should be. By the Republicans' flawed logic, I would argue that Democrats need to be more partisan. The party needs to be stronger in standing up for traditionally Democratic ideals, not weaker.

When Republicans stand up for issues they care about, they aren't accused of being partisan. The Democrats accused of being partisan for keeping the Senate in session, but nobody says President Bush is partisan for appointing a candidate to a sensitive office who holds views contrary to a majority of the American people. When the Democrats pass a bill that Bush has promised to veto, like a war funding bill that contains timetables for troop withdrawals, Bush says they are being partisan, but nobody accuses Bush of being partisan for vetoing a bill that most Americans support. Clearly, the issue of the parties being too partisan is not a real one, but is just a tactic Republicans have used to advance their policies. I have no doubt any Republican reading the previous sentence will accuse me of being partisan, which is exactly the problem. It allows the question to be moved from the substance of the issues.

So nobody should be surprised to read that I thought the Democratic strategy of keeping the U.S. Senate in session over the holidays was brilliant. It prevented a president with a track record of making tragic and damaging decisions that have repeatedly weakened our country from making another one. That makes the Senate Democrats patriots, in my book, for finding some fortitude for a change and taking appropriate action to protect their country, no matter how they will be portrayed by the Republican propaganda machine.

The Democrats will be accused of being partisan. It may not be accurate, but it's fine with me. Better partisan than weak, and better partisan than allowing Bush to get what he wants at the expense of the reputation, security and health of the United States.

When introducing "Helter Skelter" on U2's "Rattle and Hum" album, Bono said, "Here's a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back." If standing up for traditional Democratic principles makes Democrats partisan, I'm here to steal back the word for the party. If it means keeping people like Bradbury out of office, I'm happy to do it.