Is Post-Partisanship Passe? Schwarzenegger and Company (and Bill Clinton) Say No

Is post-partisanship passe? It's certainly been shredded in the last few years.

The idea that the way to move forward is to move beyond reflexive partisanship, roundly denounced in a media culture which increasingly rewards hard-edged partisanship, has been stomped all over throughout most of Barack Obama's first term as president.

Obama himself was trashed, practically from the beginning, for trying to work with congressional Republicans, who were themselves quite intractable to begin with before becoming essentially impossible for him to deal with after the Tea Party-inflected takeover of the House in November 2010.

And just look at all that's been accomplished since. (That's a little joke.) Then he was trashed for failing to change the culture of Washington.

So who would want to raise the banner of post-partisanship now?

Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger for one. The former two-term governor of California told me over the summer that he still believes that most things get done through "action in the center" away from the extremes.

I quipped that he might want to re-brand post-partisanship as, say, "post post-partisanship." He did not.

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger discussed post-partisanship at the introductory symposium hosted by his new USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. Schwarzenegger was introduced by University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias. Note: Remarks are preceded by a six-and-a-half minute video.

Schwarzenegger raised the banner he had hoisted through much of his governorship, following a very partisan detour, albeit on matters of legitimate concern, in 2005, when he hosted a one-day introductory symposium for his new USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy on Monday at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The institute was announced last month and the event featured Schwarzenegger in familiar thematic territory.

He led a morning discussion on post-partisanship with U.S. Senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, former New Mexico Governor and U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, and former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Later, there was a luncheon program on climate change with Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chairman Dr. Ravendra Pachauri, followed by an afternoon discussion on media innovation featuring Schwarzenegger and top Hollywood execs.

Ironically, most of the post-partisan panel participants have been decidedly singed, if not torched, by their moves away from partisan orthodoxy. More about that in a moment. But they weren't backing away on Monday at least.

"It's much easier to be an ideologue than it is to be someone who drives compromise," said Ridge, a finalist to be McCain's running mate in 2008 only to lose out to Sarah Palin, whose selection ironically elevated her to be one of the biggest drivers of the hyper-partisan wave in American politics. "The easiest vote in Washington is 'no.'"

McCain himself shifted focus a bit to the massive unrestricted spending we're seeing as a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. "The history of this country has been corruption, reform, corruption, reform," he noted. "There are going to be major scandals because too many millions of dollars are washing around in political campaigns."

Daschle agreed, adding that the astonishing sums make it easier for ideologues to drive divisive agendas.

McCain was a great advocate of campaign finance reform, one of the reasons we featured him at the Shadow Conventions in 2000 which I helped Arianna Huffington to stage. Political history has moved in a very different direction since the passage of the McCain-Feingold bill which many thought would clean up political finance.

Schwarzenegger, who had some very notable post-partisan successes as California's governor -- albeit not infrequently involving him as the Republican working on and working with Democrats -- noted that there was significant partisan blowback for those who reached across the aisle.

"Whenever you worked with Democrats, the Republicans hated you, and whenever you worked with the Republicans, the Democrats hated you," Schwarzenegger said.

But Richardson observed that state governments often do better than the federal government these days.

Crist said he was hammered by fellow Republicans after he hugged Obama on the president's first visit to the Sunshine State after he was elected. But he didn't regret it.

In 2008, McCain, running as a moderate conservative who was able to work with Democrats won the Republican presidential nomination, defeating Mitt Romney, the former moderate Massachusetts governor who was running as the hard right candidate, and Mike Huckabee, the evangelical candidate. McCain clinched the nomination with victories in the California and Florida primaries, benefiting from the backing of Schwarzenegger and Crist.

I revealed, on my New West Notes blog, that Schwarzenegger would endorse McCain, which he did in an event focused on climate change and renewable energy, an event that would have been unthinkable in the Republican primaries this year.

McCain staggered Romney with a win in California, then knocked him out the following in Florida with help from Crist.

Of course, moderate Republican Crist went through some big changes after that. Starting out as a big favorite to take a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, Crist was savaged by the hard right and found himself losing the Republican primary to Marco Rubio. He then became an independent, but still lost the election.

Earlier this month, he endorsed Obama for president and spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

Schwarzenegger also had big problems with hyper-partisans of both parties, but especially in the Republican Party, which became ever more conservative as his governorship went on, despite his success in appealing to the electoral center in his two landslide victories.

As I recounted here in March, the ever rightward skid of California Republicans -- which presaged the same development at the national level -- was a well-established arc years ago. Schwarzenegger himself was so alarmed that he delivered an address five years ago to the state Republican convention outside Palm Springs -- which I previewed beforehand on New West Notes -- specifically urging his party's delegates and activists to move back toward the center. Here's the complete text of his speech.

Since then, California Republicans have only moved farther to the right, which was obvious to me when I stayed to watch Texas Governor Rick Perry, who followed Schwarzenegger on the convention program, refute pretty much everything that Schwarzenegger had just said seeing. Republican registration and electoral clout continued their decline. Three years later, Governor Jerry Brown swept to a landslide win over Romney protege Meg Whitman, despite her biggest-spending non-presidential campaign in American history, leading a Democratic sweep of all statewide offices two months before Schwarzenegger's term ended.

This USC video gives a good overview of the event.

Which is not to say that Democrats weren't a problem, too. Increasingly influenced by and dependent upon public employee unions, too often transfixed by statist ideology, the Democrats were more rational as a matter of degree.

So post-partisanship is a dead letter, right?

Well, no. Post-partisanship is not about a state of kumbaya. It is about being intelligent and imaginative enough to push your values and to know when to seek common ground.

Brown, for example, never a fan of orthodox thinking, has sought to work with Republicans. He's told me repeatedly that he intends to keep on trying. Sometimes he even finds a few who want to cooperate. Of course, when there is no cooperation, he's not averse to knocking some heads.

There simply has to be a place for post-partisanship, for creative centrism, based on the Enlightenment values at the core of the Republic, in American political life if the country is to move forward. Otherwise American politics will be like the Middle East peace process.

Ironically, it was former President Bill Clinton who made a strong case for post-partisanship in his spectacularly effective Democratic convention speech re-nominating Barack Obama for president earlier this month.

"Through my foundation, both in America and around the world, I'm working all the time with Democrats, Republicans and independents," he declared. "Sometimes I couldn't tell you for the life of me who I'm working with because we focus on solving problems and seizing opportunities and not fighting all the time.

"When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good. But what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation.

"Why does cooperation work better than constant conflict? Because nobody's right all the time."

I know that's hard for a lot of hyper-partisans to believe.

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