When Bipartisan Means Bistupid

One major line of attack Senator Scott Brown makes against Elizabeth Warren is that she is a bomb tosser and he is bipartisan. But perhaps being bipartisan isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

For example, take a look at a graph provided by University of Massachusetts at Amherst political science professors Brian Schaffner and Ray LaRaja to accompany the results of a poll they conducted for release in early October.

Professors Schaffner and LaRaja asked Massachusetts voters to place themselves along an ideological continuum and asked them to do the same for Senator Brown, Warren, President Barack Obama, former Governor Mitt Romney, and the Republican and Democratic parties.

Massachusetts voters see themselves as moderate and they regard Warren and Brown about equally distant from them – Warren to the left and Brown to the right. But we also see Obama and the Democrats pretty close to the average voter, but Romney and the Republican Party way out to the right. So Brown has to limit his perceived relationship to the national Republican Party and of course, there would be little reason for Warren to seek a “bipartisan” relationship with a party that is perceived as radically out of touch with the Massachusetts electorate.

Beyond the electoral consequences “bipartisan” has too often come to mean “bistupid.” Consider this from Prof. Simon Johnson’s post at The Baseline Scenario titled Bipartisan Trouble Ahead :

In Washington today, “bipartisan” is a loaded term. The traditional usage of bipartisan is an agreement across the usual political divide – sometimes a good idea and in many cases the only way to get things done. But a darker meaning applies all too frequently – a group in which the members, irrespective of party affiliation, are very close to special interests and work to advance an agenda that helps a few powerful people while hurting the rest of us.

Financial deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s was pushed by both Democrats and Republicans. It reached its apogee when Alan Greenspan, a Republican, was chairman of the Federal Reserve and Robert Rubin, a Democrat, was Treasury secretary. Bill Clinton was president; Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House.

This is probably why President Obama and Mitt Romney shied away this fall from the issue of who was responsible for the financial crisis that brought us the deep recession and slow recovery of the last five years. Both political parties share culpability for allowing parts of the financial sector to take excessive risk while financing themselves with a great deal of debt and relatively little equity.

You’d have to judge by hysterical mail from the Chamber of Commerce and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg accusing Warren of wanting to return to U.S.S.R. socialism that our moneyed and conservative interests are worried about a Senator Warren.

In the spirit of bipartisanship perhaps the Democrats should be equally concerned. As Jeffrey Toobin recently wrote in a Profile of Warren (gated) in The New Yorker, Warren has been harshly critical of Democrats she believes betrayed the middle class during legislative battles over bankruptcy. Of Senator Hillary Clinton Warren wrote: “The bill was essentially the same, but Hillary Rodham Clinton was not. . . .  she could not afford such a principled position. Campaigns cost money, and that money wasn’t coming from families in financial trouble.” On then Senator Joseph Biden: “Senators like Joe Biden should not be allowed to sell out women in the morning and be heralded as their friend in the evening.”

And how can anyone forget Warren’s grilling of Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner about where the TARP money loans to AIG went.

Warren is tough and she doesn’t owe anyone; she’s raised a lot of money but the Democrats went to her, she didn’t have to go begging. So we may have an odd form of bipartisanship on financial issues if she gets to the senate: the far right (Republican) and center right (Democratic) parties on one side, and Senator Warren as the loyal opposition.












About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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