British Bipartisanship: Four Top Tips for the U.S.

The story now: Gridlock or bipartisanship? How can the political leaders of the two Americas cut a deal on the deficit and avoid the 'fiscal cliff?' The British experience of coalition government offers a few tips.

Of course, the British and U.S. political systems are very different. The victor in Britain usually runs, in former Lord Chancellor Hailsham's terms, an 'elective dictatorship' -- while the U.S. constitution ensures a powerful set of 'checks and balances.' Looking at the state of play on Capitol Hill, though, it is worth recalling John Stuart Mill's warning that if any political system achieved a perfect balance, then by definition 'the machine must stand still.'

So, any comparison is necessarily limited. But Britain offers a real-time example of an Anglo-Saxon political culture, which found itself in the middle of a fiscal crisis and no party in overall parliamentary control. Bipartisanship was born of necessity.

Americans tend to think that their own brand of partisanship is of an entirely different order. And that might be right. But don't think that it is all tea and cakes in Westminster. Just watch Prime Minister's Questions on C-SPAN one week. Before 2010, David Cameron was asked his favourite political joke and answered: "Nick Clegg." Clegg described Cameron's politics as 'fake and phoney.'

But after the 2010 election, the two leaders -- and their two very distinct parties -- joined forces; formed a time-limited coalition government; and delivered a tough (too tough for many) deficit reduction plan.

There are four lessons from the British experience in 2010 that might be useful in Washington of 2012.

First, dramatize the danger. The more stark the apparent crisis facing the nation, the more room there is for bipartisanship. Political leaders on both sides can safely depart from party orthodoxy, on the grounds of national emergency.

In the UK, we hugely played up the danger facing the economy in 2010. The rising deficit was described as an existential threat to national sovereignty. We peppered speeches with warnings that we might go the way of Greece, or lose control to the pinstriped bond traders. We were accused of overstating it.

But politically, the sense of crisis was a vital element in creating the right climate -- especially within each political tribe -- allowing deals to be done without loss of face. Right now, economists and historians know that the 'fiscal cliff' is much less scary than everyone is making it sound. It's not a cliff at all, as Paul Krugman points out today. But what an evocative framing: a cliff! That we're careering towards! Who can save us? My political advice is to dramatize the cliff for all it is worth: not because it is true, but because it is the kind of necessary half-fiction that eases the path to bipartisanship.

Second, use a "special team." In the UK, small -- 3-4 person -- teams hammered out the coalition deal. They were handpicked, discreet, and well-prepared. Special ops. Obama and the House Republicans each need to avoid letting too many cooks stir the stew. It is hard to keep numbers down; when negotiations are this momentous, everybody wants a slice of the action. Even once we were in Government in the UK, decisions on deficit reduction were made around the cabinet table, but not by the whole cabinet. A small group -- the four key ministers and their closest advisers -- did the key deals.

Third, get the grey-hairs. Elder statesmen on both sides are in a unique position to bless any deal. They can speak to the nation about the national interest. They can reassure nervous activists. The former Conservative Prime Minister John Major and former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown were surrogates for bipartisanship in the UK. In the U.S., the need for greyhair endorsement will be especially important on the Republican side. Let's hope that when Obama said he looks forward to 'sitting down' with Romney in the next few weeks, it was not just good manners. Romney's greatest public service now would be to give the Republican congressional leadership cover for a proper budget deal.

Fourth, share a drink. Politics is personal. The British coalition was based on 'chemistry, not physics'. The first press conference of PM and DPM was likened to a gay marriage ceremony -- all roses and jokes. In the early stages, Clegg helped Cameron put an IKEA baby cupboard together. Although there have been many bumps along the road, they did like and trust each other enough to do the original coalition deal. John Podesta is right to say that 'you don't have to like someone to be able to cut a deal with him' [National Journal, Nov 1]. But it helps to build up some personal trust. The texture of personal relationships does matter. Eye contact, humour, handshakes, all matter in laying the foundations for the trust necessary for bipartisan progress.

I imagine that Obama is not ecstatic about the idea of sitting, again, with Boehner on the White House terrace while the Speaker sips Merlot and puffs on a cigarette. But needs must. This time the president might need to trade his iced tea for something stronger.