But I am running for President because I believe that to actually make change happen - to make this time different than all the rest - we need a leader who can finally move beyond the divisive politics of Washington and bring Democrats, Independents, and Republicans together to get things done. That's how we'll win this election, and that's how we'll change this country when I am President of the United States...
Many will recognize this as part of the standard stump speech of Senator Barack Obama. He has often been referred to as the "Cum Bi Ya" candidate or the "Can't we all just get along" politician. Our own Jodi Dean has ridiculed him as advocating "Let us rejoice and be glad that we are one." I must admit that I myself have struggled with the issue of democrats appealing to bi-partisanship and a message of unity. With the issues we face as a country so large, and stakes so high, can we afford to white wash the real economic and political divisions in the United States?
It is with these questions in mind that I recently finished the very powerful book by Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal. In addition to making a strong case for the re-assertion of government intervention into the economy, Krugman lays out the political causes of the growing economic inequality in the United States. And he clearly lays the blame at the feet of the corporatist right's desire to return to the gilded age. In an op-ed that hammers on the same themes, and specifically addresses the conciliatory tone of Senator Obama, Krugman calls for more, not less, partisanship:
American politics is ugly these days, and many people wish things were different. For example, Barack Obama recently lamented the fact that “politics has become so bitter and partisan” — which it certainly has.
But he then went on to say that partisanship is why “we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that’s what we have to change first.” Um, no. If history is any guide, what we need are political leaders willing to tackle the big problems despite bitter partisan opposition. If all goes well, we’ll eventually have a new era of bipartisanship — but that will be the end of the story, not the beginning.
Or to put it another way: what we need now is another F.D.R., not another Dwight Eisenhower.
You see, the nastiness of modern American politics isn’t the result of a random outbreak of bad manners. It’s a symptom of deeper factors — mainly the growing polarization of our economy. And history says that we’ll see a return to bipartisanship only if and when that economic polarization is reversed...
I urge Mr. Obama — and everyone else who thinks that good will alone is enough to change the tone of our politics — to read the speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the quintessential example of a president who tackled big problems that demanded solutions.
For the fact is that F.D.R. faced fierce opposition as he created the institutions — Social Security, unemployment insurance, more progressive taxation and beyond — that helped alleviate inequality. And he didn’t shy away from confrontation.
“We had to struggle,” he declared in 1936, “with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. ... Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”
It was only after F.D.R. had created a more equal society, and the old class warriors of the G.O.P. were replaced by “modern Republicans” who accepted the New Deal, that bipartisanship began to prevail.
The history of the last few decades has basically been the story of the New Deal in reverse. Income inequality has returned to levels not seen since the pre-New Deal era, and so have political divisions in Congress as the Republicans have moved right, once again becoming the party of the economic elite. The signature domestic policy initiatives of the Bush administration have been attempts to undo F.D.R.’s legacy, from slashing taxes on the rich to privatizing Social Security. And a bitter partisan gap has opened up between the G.O.P. and Democrats, who have tried to defend that legacy...
So am I calling for partisanship for its own sake? Certainly not. By all means pass legislation, if you can, with plenty of votes from the other party: the Social Security Act of 1935 received 77 Republican votes in the House, about the same as the number of Republicans who recently voted for a minimum wage increase.
But politicians who try to push forward the elements of a new New Deal, especially universal health care, are sure to face the hatred of a large bloc on the right — and they should welcome that hatred, not fear it.
I think Krugman's call to arms is inspiring and his assessment of recent history accurate. But I am also struck by what he says toward the end of his book: "The only way a progressive agenda can be enacted is if Democrats have both the presidency and a large enough majority in Congress to overcome Republican opposition." I suspect this is also true - but where I disagree is in tactics. I do not think an overly caustic, partisan tone will get democrats either the white house or large majorities in the legislature. I believe a rhetoric of healing and national reconciliation ("Cum Bi Ya-ism" if you will) is more likely to appeal to a broad base of voters, forming a large enough coalition to combat the inevitable onslaught of the right wing attack machine. Sounding a call for unity is not declaring surrender in advance, but simply getting as many folks on your side first, before doing battle.