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Enough of Soft & Fuzzy Bipartisanship: America Needs a Dissident Ticket

I don't believe that bipartisanship solves the challenges ahead. What is needed now are rebels.
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The other day, I mentioned Bloomberg's increasing fascination with running for President. According to an inside Bloomberg source, the "environment is not yet right" to commit to a run, but "he's working through the details of a possible strategy."

Now we have news that former Senators Sam Nunn and David Boren are convening a bipartisan group of 17 senior Republican and Democratic leaders at the University of Oklahoma on January 6th and 7th (list amended below).

The purpose, according to organizers, is to organize "truth-telling discussions" on issues of major national concern and to send a signal to both parties that this group wants to see real commitment to a bipartisan, unity government in the next presidential administration.

Nearly all commentators speculate that this effort could be used to punctuate the beginning of an independent party presidential bid.

But the organizers of this meeting are deluding themselves if they think that getting Republicans and Democrats behind a non-specific agenda is the real challenge for the nation -- or is even worth all of this effort. Unprincipled, unfocused bipartisanship is bland, stale politics. And as Matt Stoller notes, bipartisanship too frequently is called on to anoint bad decisions to give both sides freedom from accountability.

This kind of effort reminds me of former Council on Foreign Relations Vice President Nancy Roman's "Both Sides of the Aisle," a well-intended but policy-lite treatment on what it would take to rebuild common cause across party lines and foster more bipartisanship. One of her core recommendations was that Republican and Democratic Members of Congress travel together on Congressional Delegations (CODELs) more frequently.

Traveling together does not remedy the fact that Republicans and Democrats were complicit in the Iraq War. Both parties have been complicit in the appropriations corruption that came with obscene Homeland Security spending around the nation. Both parties have been complicit in refusing to solidly challenge the most aggressive expansion of Executive Branch authority in more than a century. Both parties have been complicit in failing to shore up investment in the American economy and its workforce. Both parties have been complicit in allowing Americans to be spied on. Both parties have been complicit in allowing low level soldiers to take the hit for Abu Ghraib and allowing the decision-makers in the White House and Pentagon to get a complete pass.

The situation we have today was produced by aggressive, high-fear tactics of minority political operations within both the Republican and Democratic parties -- that then cowed a party membership that passively followed.

But some dissidents have emerged -- and Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) is probably the most important of these.

From what I know of Hagel, he is not bemoaning the absence of soft and fuzzy bipartisanship. He wants a change in policy -- a change in the course of the nation.

What former Senator Sam Nunn seems to be saying in the commentary he has thus far provided on the upcoming meeting is that bipartisanship should be a goal unto itself. That's wrong.

What the Republican and Democratic party members need to realize is that both of their party apparatuses have been taken over by a combination of ideological and utopian zealots as well as a policy-blind secretariat that passively follows the ideologues. The pragmatists and realists in both parties -- particularly in foreign policy but also in other spheres as well -- have been in decline.

The bubble of America's greatness was punctured by Iraq. America's hegemonic pretensions ended when the world saw America -- which once seemed to have no bounds on what it could do -- show its limits in the Iraq War.

When superpowers show their limits, allies are the first to recalculate their behavior because they won't count on us as much as they did before. And enemies move their agendas.

America's global national security position is eroding. The global equilibrium is in serious flux -- and this is no time for ideological zealotry in either the Democratic or Republican parties.

But it's not a time for purposeless bipartisanship either. This is a time to get serious about challenges and for the dissidents that have been dissatisfied to rebel.

The next president of the United States is going to be tested. Every troublesome player in the international system is going to kick the tires of our new president -- much like Khrushchev did with Kennedy.

Ahmadinejad will spark something, testing us. Hu Jintao will throw some dust in the new president's face. Kim Jong Il will remind the president that good behavior comes at a very high price. Hugo Chavez will work hard to embarrass the new occupant of the White House. Al Qaeda will engineer another mass casualty incident not just for their cause but to test the resolve of the new establishment in Washington. The Taiwanese will flirt with independence. The Israelis will test how much room they are given to run beyond what the Bush administration has already given them. And then there is Russia, and frankly a long roster of other nations that want to consolidate the appearance of their rising international power in the midst of the perception of American decline.

I don't believe that bipartisanship solves the challenges ahead. New policies might help restore some balance and the beginnings of a positive direction. But what is needed now are rebels.

I think Hagel is that kind of rebel, though he is disgusted with Washington and both parties (perhaps a good thing) -- and I think Michael Bloomberg is a hard core pragmatist. Neither of them is perfect, but they are a possible alternative to the less than compelling choices currently on the table.

Some believe that Bloomberg's tough manhandling of protesters in New York disqualify him. Many progressives who like Hagel's leadership in trying to bring the Iraq War to an end fear his social conservatism.

My only fear is that Sam Nunn (who may be auditioning for the VP slot himself with Bloomberg), David Boren, former Defense Secretary William Cohen and others concocting this January fest next week are more about getting Dems and Republicans to pal around together -- not rebelling on the basis of policy that outrages them.

The sad but real truth today is that the Bush administration came in to office in 2001 under suspect circumstances but roared and behaved as if it had won an 80% mandate. The Democrats folded and gave Bush all the room to run he wanted. There is mutual responsibility and complicity in the results we have today.

I don't want more bipartisanship for its own sake. I want dissident Republicans and dissident Democrats to make this government work in the way it is supposed to work -- and to deliver on the policies that the public expects.

So a message to David Boren and Sam Nunn -- whose personal animosity towards gays and lesbians many of whom have done great service to this country is not forgotten here -- is make your meeting about an overhaul of American public policy both domestically and in the national security and foreign policy spheres.

If you have Dems and Republicans lining up behind those policies -- terrific.

If not, this meeting is a waste of time and a fuzzy distraction.

Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note

Those attending University of Oklahoma Unity '08 Meeting:

Sam Nunn (Dem), David Boren (Dem), William Cohen (Rep), Christine Todd Whitman (Rep), Gary Hart (Dem), John C. "Jack" Danforth (Rep), Chuck Robb (Dem), Bill Brock (Rep), Michael Bloomberg (Ind), Chuck Hagel (Rep), Jim Leach (Rep), Alan Dixon (Dem), Susan Eisenhower (Rep/Ind), Bob Graham (Dem), David Abshire (Rep), Edward Perkins (Dem/Ind)