McCutcheon and the Good Old Bipartisan Days

April 5 | Posted by Rich Culbertson | Media Feeds

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FireShot Screen Capture #231 - 'Schieffer_ “We no longer have any campaign laws that really matter”' - www_cbsnews_com_videos_schieffer-we-no-longer-have-any-campaign-laws-that-really-matterBarring a few exceptions, it seems acceptable for establishment journalists to bemoan the influence of big money over politics. That’s interesting, but it’s important to examine what they’re saying.

CBS Evening News (4/2/14) had veteran anchor and Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer deliver a mini-commentary about the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision. As he told anchor Scott Pelley:

Scott, for all practical purposes, this ruling is just one more sign that we no longer have any campaign laws that really matter. More and more, the very rich are taking control of our politics. They don’t control it yet, but their influence just keeps growing, and this ruling will make it easier for them.

Schieffer went on:

Relaxing previous campaign laws has already changed our politics dramatically. Instead of working to form the bipartisan coalitions that once produced the compromises that made Washington work, the emphasis now is almost solely on raising money to run attack ads…. The question is, what are we getting for all this money? Does anyone really believe Washington is working better than it used to? I don’t.

So it’s OK to talk about the corrupting influence of money–though, as Brad Blog (4/4/14) pointed out, much of this money goes back into media companies like CBS in the form of political advertising. 

But what’s this about these good old days of “bipartisan coalitions”? It’s hard to know how Schieffer connects that problem to the corrupting influence of big contributors, but nonetheless, this familiar lament of corporate media pundits–that bipartisanship is good and it’s a shame we don’t have more of it now–is one worth challenging. 

For some, this is about civility; the fact that Democrats like Tip O’Neill and Republicans like Ronald Reagan were on friendly terms in private is supposedly telling. In reality, though, they continued to harshly criticize each other in public (Guardian, 11/7/13). 

Sometimes the gap is expressed in purely political terms: You don’t see Republicans and Democrats voting together much. But it’s important to remember that one version of bipartisanship existed because of the presence of white supremacist Southern Democrats, who could be counted on to vote with Republicans on civil rights issues.  And the real problem could be mostly about one of the two major parties; as Harold Meyerson argued, the lesson of the passage of the Affordable Care Act was that the rightward shift of the GOP makes it very difficult to advance even relatively modest legislative ideas (Washington Post, 7/29/09). 

As Michael Lind (Salon, 11/24/13) wrote, big legislative victories aren’t often bipartisan in origin:

Major reforms have never emerged from split-the-difference compromises among the major parties. Usually one party pushes through a major reform, over the opposition of the rival party but sometimes with the help of some rival-party politicians. The defeated party rails against the innovation for years or decades, but eventually accepts it.

US bombing of Iraq (cc photo: Andy Dunaway/US Army)

The Iraq War: a bipartisan effort. (cc photo: Andy Dunaway/US Army)

That said, it’s not hard to think of plenty of policies that exist thanks to cooperation between the two major parties. The Iraq War, many aspects of the drug war, No Child Left Behind, the growth of the surveillance state, the war in Afghanistan…and on and on. Maybe the problem is too much bipartisanship?

Just as telling, though, is when people like Schieffer explain what kind of big bipartisan victories they’re envisioning: cutting Social Security, for instance (FAIR Blog, 2/24/14). Here how he put it in February: 


I mean, when the president comes out and says he’s not going to touch entitlement reform, that’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull to the Republicans. I mean, have we given up on trying to get anything done and compromising on anything?

That’s the “good” kind of compromise, then–cutting Social Security and Medicare. Those are ideas that have some bipartisan support; the main reason they’re not happening is because the public overwhelmingly rejects them. Rooting for plutocrats to gain more control over our politics doesn’t make much sense–but neither does calling for bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship. 

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