A More Serious Discussion On Bipartisanship

In my last post, I offered an infographic positing that the recent health care reform bill was one of the most partisan pieces of major social legislation we’ve ever seen, comparing it to votes for civil rights (1964), medicare/medicaid (1965), and welfare reform (1996). The infographic was actually originally designed not to indicate partisanship per se, but to rebut the very specific complaint popular among many progressives that Republicans have always opposed major social legislation at the beginning and then come to accept it later on. They then claim that health care reform is no different than those other legislative acts.

As for that latter charge, which was the driving force behind the creation of the infographic, there’s no way around it: looking at the data and maintaining that Republicans have a history of reflexive unthinking opposition to social legislation is simply a denial of reality. Some more thoughtful individuals have tried to maintain the heart of that argument by asserting that ideology was previously spread across party lines in such a way that the ideological equivalent of Republicans in the 1960’s (and, I presume, the 1990s) were opposed to social legislation in a very partisan way.

It is true, my infographic is simplistic and that kind of a story could be lurking in the data. It was designed to debunk the original claim (mission accomplished) and to suggest that, in a “by the numbers” approach, the health care reform bill was not exactly a bipartisan triumph.

The funniest thing to me is that there is absolutely no way to argue that this vote was bipartisan in the strict sense. Disect the word itself. Bi – Two. Partisan – relating to parties (usually political). In order for the bill to be bipartisan, two parties had to vote for it. There was only one party that voted for this bill. It is de facto not bipartisan.

But most of the people who were arguing with me didn’t mean “bipartisan” in a literal sense, they mean it in a “Democrats tried to work with Republicans, but Republicans are jerks who hate President Obama so much that they wouldn’t vote for health care reform no matter what” sort of way.

The way I see it, Republicans who voted against the bill could have had three major reasons for doing so:

  1. They’re jerks who want President Obama to fail (the “Party of No” theory)
  2. They have principled reasons for opposing the legislation (deficits, scope of the federal government, constitutional concerns, etc)
  3. They watched the polls and decided it wasn’t in their best interest

Now, it’s possible that the Party of No theory is correct and that all Republicans simply hate President Obama in an irrational way. However, in order to believe it whole heartedly, one would have to come to come to the conclusion that Republican congressmen are willing to lose their seats for the chance to stick out their tongues at President Obama. Assuming the villainy of one’s political opponents is a game for the young and angry; I’ve no taste for it. And anyone who thinks that politicians are constantly in a “f*** you, even if I lose my seat” mode hasn’t been following politics for very long. Congressmen like their jobs. Even the Republican ones.

In order for the Party of No theory to hold together, its adherents would also need to conclude that there are dozens of Democrats out there who also hate President Obama. While this is also a possibility, I’m starting to say “this is a possibility” in the sense that it is technically possible rather than in any way realistic. It seems far more likely that a number of Democrats were also watching the polls and decided that voting against this bill was in their best electoral interest.

Finally, much noise was made in 2008 by those in favor of a progressive Congress that we just voted in the most progressive congress of the last 30 years. With that in mind, let’s look carefully at the situation: The most progressive (liberal) Congress in the last 30 years passes a piece of legislation by a tiny margin without a single vote from the minority party and with dozens of Democrats voting against it and we are meant to believe that it was as bipartisan as it could have possibly been.

This kind of logic was laughable when Republicans tried it 6 years ago. It was perhaps optimistic of me to assume that Democrats and liberals would rise above such nonsense.


  1. […] UPDATE: I discuss the issue of partisanship and health care reform more here. […]

  2. Jeff says:

    I found your info-graphic on the partisan-ship of the Yes-side of the vote for the Health Care Reform bill very interesting. The info-graphic only focuses on the Yes-side, and therefore hides how the No-side lines shaped up. I would be interested in seeing what the data looked like for the No-side of the same votes. I think this graphics would show an interesting picture of where the partisan lines lie in the discussion of social bills.

    Further, and this would be a much more intense analysis, an analysis of the bill itself showing how much of the legislation directly affects health-care provision, how much is appended pork-barrel (maybe by partisan lines?), and how much is a change to the scope of congressional powers. Of course, this graphic may not be as useful, nor as numbers based, so it maybe debatable with respect to the usefulness/validity of the graphic.

    Of course, as a Canadian, watching your graphic posts, I am always wondering how I could do something similar within my own country’s political practices.

  3. Martin says:

    Excellent commentary, I just discovered this blog. OK, accolades aside, I have a slightly different take on the your interesting graphs. I see your point about other large initiatives being bi-partisan and the progressives and press merely glossing over it.

    The fact is, I wish they were right! I’d like to see many more of these issues a whole lot LESS bi-partisan. The reality is that there are a whole lot of progressives in both parties. The ones in the republican party tend to be a bit more nationalistic, while the ones in the democratic party seem to be more global.

  4. Nathan says:

    Not voting for it was simply a political strategy move on the GOP’s part. They compromised to get several of their ideas incorporated into the bill and then voted against it despite their contributions. Even with this obvious attempt to regain power in the future, the bill that passed was a bipartisan piece of legislation.

  5. Al says:

    Nathan: All Republican amendments were rejected. True, there were some Senate Republican measures adopted in committee, however the majority leader rejected that entire process and re-wrote the bill, which passed the Senate Christmas Eve without time for anyone to read it.

  6. @poliscipunk says:

    My quibble with your original post and your graphic was not that it wasn’t technically accurate (it is), but that it misses the point (it does). You are making the (inferred) claim that bipartisanship is somehow an indicator of political division (otherwise, why would it matter?) and when placing the health care vote against other historic votes, it is somehow more politically divisive and that a lack of bipartisanship is a bad thing. My argument then, which you don’t address there or here, is that partisanship in 2/3 of your comparative examples was not an indicator of political division, and therefor not comparable cases.

    A second and related point- I never made any claims about Republicans opposing reform. by my critique of your graph, that, too would be meaningless. I said that historically, CONSERVATIVES oppose meaningful reform and then come on board later once those reforms have become accepted and popular. That is true in the case of both Medicare and (with some loud tea-bagging exceptions) civil rights. The leading conservative intellectual of the 20th century himself said that a conservative’s job is to “stand athwart history, yelling ‘STOP!'”

    It’s not your numbers that are wrong, it’s that the assumptions of your analysis are wrong. Bipartisanship as either a metric or a value is a silly idea.