A No BS Take on “Bipartisanship,” “working across the aisle,” “healing our divided nation” and other bits of Democratic nonsense
Last week, Joe Biden was at New York City’s Carlyle Hotel holding a private fundraiser. After assuring the assembled wealthy folks that in a Biden administration “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change,” he riffed on how he “got things done” in Congress by working with hardcore Southern white-supremacist senators. He insisted that compromise and “consensus” are the only way to make advances in Washington and, though, “old fashioned,” he was the Great Compromiser.
A lot has been written on Biden using his work with racist Dixiecrats as an example of “working across the aisle.” However, despite Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, and others centering their campaigns around “I can work with ‘both sides’”, there’s been little said on what these folks mean by “bipartisanship,” how their definition jibes with real life, or if their “reaching across the aisle” works or even is possible. So, that is where I will go today.
First off, let’s quickly dismiss the notion that Congress works on “consensus.” It doesn’t. To pass legislation though a congressional committee, all that is needed is a simple majority. If the vote is 5–4, five people agreed to pass it through, four did not. Five-four doesn’t conform with the loose definition of consensus — “a general agreement” — nor the more conservative definition of “group solidarity in sentiment and belief.” Once legislation goes to the House or Senate floor for a vote, the legislation needs either a majority or a “super-majority” to pass. Again, majority rules, not consensus.
In real life, Biden working with “the other side” is mostly his committee work crafting legislation. However, when he says that he can sit down with Mitch McConnell and hammer things out, he is fantasizing that he can get Republicans to work with him on the big things outside of committees: tax policy, immigration, civil rights, abortion, and climate change.
Now, in the crafting of legislation, there’s a lot of back and forth among potential supporters, and with that comes compromise — but this process occurs mostly among people who already agree on a broad solution to a generally acknowledged problem. This is not what is happening on climate change legislation. Democrats mostly agree that climate change exists, is caused in part by human activity, and what is needed are strong measures to address it. They disagree on details, but agree on the problem and that there are acceptable solutions to deal with it. Republicans, for the most part, either believe that climate change is a hoax or that humans have nothing to do with it. Those few Republicans who accept humankind’s role in climate change, tend to believe that there is little we can do about it. Because the most Republicans do not believe there is a problem or anything can be done about anything, they allow no space for compromise.
Contrast climate change to criminal justice reform in the area of sentencing. After decades of supporting “tough on crime” legislation, centrist Democrats have come around to the absurdity of mandatory minimum sentencing. Through their libertarian members, Republicans have reached a similar conclusion on mandatory minimums. Because there is a common area of agreement — something that does not exist with climate change — there can be bipartisanship on this issue. Because of that, Congress passed the First Step Act and Trump signed it.
Biden’s claims that Democrats think that “…you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore” is pure political bullshit. If Democrats saw the “other side” as enemy, there would be no First Step Act. Democrats and Republicans sit down and figure out budgets. They work together on disaster relief, farm subsidies, highway funding, foreign policy, and a whole bunch of other issues. Watch PBS’s News Hour and you regularly see a Republican congressperson sitting next to a Democratic rep pushing some piece of bipartisan legislation. Hell, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ted Cruz are working together on legislation to stop former members of Congress from working as lobbyists, as well as to increase access to birth control. Where exactly does this reality fit in with the “enemies across the aisle” fantasy?
Back to the areas where members of Congress and/or the president have profound disagreements: Climate change, the social safety net, abortion, environmental, worker, and consumer protections, civil rights, tax policy, health care. On these issues, typically, the dance here has been:
Democrats: Let’s dance.
Republican: We don’t dance.
Democrats: We can dance anyway you want.
Republicans: We will never dance.
Democrats: Let’s do the mashed potato!
Democrats: Let’s do the twist!
Democrats: Tell me, baby, do you like it like this?
Republicans: No! No! No!
In the past, when this has happened, Democrats look to see what Republican solution is out there. With health care, the Obama administration found Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s 2006 health care reform. They did some tweaks, named it the “Affordable Care Act,” and present it to Republicans. Republicans don’t just say “No!” to the idea: They refused to negotiate to a compromise. Instead, they used their opposition to the ACA, to supercharge the Tea Party, a far-right opposition movement intent on thwarting the first Black president. Republicans warned of “creeping communism” and “death panels.” They tapped into the Tea Party’s racist roots with the Reaganesque dog-whistle of “Obamacare” being little more than the “Takers” (The Blacks) mooching off of the “Makers” (The Whites).
Take a clear look at the fight over Obamacare and “disfunction in Washington” and you see two things over and over and over: 1) Democrats willing to sell out their base, using conservative solutions so that they can strike a deal with Republicans, and 2) Republican Party seeing Democrats’ good faith overtures as a sign of weakness on the left. They then use intransigence, irrationality, and unreasonableness as tactics to crush their enemy. Want a contemporary example of the Democrats trying to play “West Wing” in the Republican world of Westeros? Let’s go to Oregon!
Last Thursday, Oregon’s Republican state legislators bolted for Idaho to prevent a vote on HB2020, a bill which would authorize the state to start a “cap-and-trade” program to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions. The legislation is fairly modest, similar to legislation already enacted by nine other states, and it is based on a concept — cap-and-trade — which was once championed by very conservative politicians. Let me explain:
Cap-and-trade is also known as emission trading. As both names suggest, cap-and-trade uses the market to limit emissions. This is how it works: The state determines an upper limit on something it would like to curb or eliminate, in this case carbon emissions. The limit is the cap. For this exercise, let’s say that the cap is 100 tons of carbon. The immediate goal is to have all polluters at or under the 100-ton cap by 2025.
Under cap-and-trade, we monetize emissions: For our example, each ton of carbon is worth one credit. One hundred tons equals 100 credits. We have identified two major carbon emitters, Smokey Scott and Dirty Dennis. Divide the credits evenly and the major emitters get 50 credits each for the year. (The state can either give these credits to the emitters for free or charge them for them.) So, Smokey Scott or Dirty Dennis emits one ton of carbon and they have spent one credit. Spend more than their 50 credits each and Smokey Scott or Dirty Dennis get hit by a high fine. With cap-and-trade there is an out. If Smokey Scott or Dirty Dennis do not spend all of their credits, they can sell what they don’t use on a market. The ability to sell credits is the “trade” in cap-and-trade.
I run Smokey Scott. I have 50 credits; however, because I’ve been making improvements on my smoked gizzard facility, I’ve gotten my emissions down to 35 tons. That means that I have 15 credits I am not going to use. Damn, what am I going to do with them? Under cap-and-trade, I can sell them on a carbon emissions market.
Down the road from me is Dirty Dennis. Dirty Dennis has a plant where he burns human hair. Why? Because he is a misanthrope. Dirty Dennis hates the world so much that he will exceed his 50-ton limit for the year. Cap-and-trade gives Dirty Dennis on out. I have 15 credits to sell, Dirty Dennis wants to buy them. I squeeze him for as much as I can — a six pack of Lucky Lager and a back shave — he pays up, he gets my credits. Dirty Dennis can now burn 65 carbon tons worth of hair.
Smokey Scott creates 35 tons of carbon, Dirty Dennis churns out 65 tons, combined we are still at cap-and-trade’s 100-ton limit. This business-friendly strategy has enabled me to profit off my reduction of carbon emissions, while giving Dirty Dennis some flexibility to continue his crappy business practices without being fined by the state. For both of us it is win-win.
Fast forward to 2030. The state has reduced the carbon emissions limit to 60 tons per year. Smokey Scott and Dirty Dennis are still in business. Under the 2030 limit, we each get 30 credits. In 2035, the state sets the limit even lower. The final goal is to zero out emissions while giving those creating emissions an economic incentive to do so.
Cap-and-trade or carbon trading is not the only way to reduce emission. In fact, many environmentalists and economists believe cap-and-trade is inefficient and/or ineffective. Cap-and-trace critics tend to favor a command-control model, which is one that uses strong regulations, hard caps with no trading, and substantial fines for those who exceed the cap (much like a luxury tax in sports).
The carbon tax — which heavily taxes emissions — is a command-control model. Command-control is generally favored by liberals and those on the left, but is hated by the business community and Wall Street. Back when Republicans acknowledged the importance of science and the crappiness of pollution, cap-and-trade was the conservative response to the carbon tax and command-control.
One of the main political forces behind cap-and-trade was attorney C. Boyden Gray. If the name sounds familiar, it is because Gray was a prominent member of both the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations. He was one of the people behind FreedomWorks, Dick Army’s attempt to organize the Tea Party. He is part of the Federalist Society, the group that drafted the list that Trump pulls from to fill judicial vacancies. He is a conservative who leans libertarian. No rational person would call C. Boyden Gray non-partisan or having a soft spot for Democrats. However, Gray knew politics and how to work with people to get what he wanted.
Back in 1990, Grey worked with Democrats and some environmentalists to amend the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA). Grey’s main achievements was to insert language into the legislation that favored “market-oriented instruments” (cap-and-trade) over command-control, which was what former versions of the Clean Air Act used to fight pollution.
While cap and trade had its critics, the CAAA’s bipartisan support has been hailed as an example of bipartisanship (it passed the Senate 86–10). The CAAA’s cap-and-trade provisions are also credited for helping curb acid rain. Understandably, it was seen as a model for attacking climate change.
Unfortunately, Republican climate change denial coupled with power politics have made any action on climate change a conservative no-no. Cap-and-trade — the strategy they once owned — is out. Doing nothing is in. Ironically, by doing nothing (or next to nothing), we are at the point when command-control might be our only way out of this mess. However, because Republicans are so dead set against any action on climate change, Democrats scramble to appease them with cap-and-trade.
Back to Oregon: In February, Democrats introduced HB2020 in the Oregon state legislature. The centerpiece of HB2020 is cap-and-trade. Because Democrats have a supermajority in Oregon’s state house and own the governorship, the bill got through committee, was moved to the senate floor, where it was sure to pass. Oregon Republicans weren’t going to let that happen.
On Thursday, Republican legislators decided to deny the legislature a quorum. No quorum, no vote. No vote, no cap-and-trade. They achieved this by leaving Oregon for Idaho. Oregon’s governor Kate Brown ordered state troopers to find the truant lawmakers and bring them back to Salem.
Republican State Senator Brian Boquist challenged Brown: “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.” On Friday, right-wing militia members riffed off Boquest’s threat to engage in a gun battle with police by threatening Democratic lawmakers. Militia members showed up to the state capitol looking to stage a Bundy-family style occupation. The threats and presence of armed thugs shook Salem — legislators and state workers were frightened — so the head of the Senate shut down the state house. This is what Oregon Republicans see as acceptable politics: Opposing legislation offered in the spirit of compromise with an invitation to a gun fight and terrorist threats against lawmakers and state workers.
In this week’s Democratic debates, we will hear a lot of politicians talk about “reaching across the aisle” to “achieve bipartisan solutions” that will “bring people together” and “heal” our “divided country.” Where in the Oregon chaos is an opportunity for Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, or any of the footnotes to “work across the aisle”? How will “listening” to the “forgotten white working class” and the “neglected Midwest” bring us to “middle ground”?
It is not like Oregon Democrats are pushing anything “radical.” The boogieman of the Green New Deal is nowhere in sight. No one is proposing command-control or a carbon tax. Oregon Democrats are trying to enact a well-worn and oft-criticized-for-being-too-soft Republican solution — cap-and-trade, the most conservative approach we have to deal with pollution, once the very least we could do. Today, Republicans see cap-and-trade as socialism.
Seems to me that cap-and-trade is the compromise, just as the ACA was the compromise, just as the moderate Merrick Garland was the compromise. If the Democrats compromise any further, they might as well call themselves Republicans…and even then, any idea that Democrats have will be rejected simply because it is being pushed by Democrats. Don’t trust me. Listen to Mitch McConnell.
The problem here is not progressive Democrats’ unwillingness to reach across the aisle. For forty years, they’ve reached so hard that might as well be Reed Richards. On “small issues” they make progress (again see AOC and Ted Cruz). On major issues such as climate change and immigration, nothing. Democrats still try, but Republicans have abandoned good faith negotiation. They reject any solution that requires them to compromise, knowing that if they don’t compromise, the status quo remains the status quo. The status quo has been very good for them. It has made them richer and more powerful than ever. If not for Trump’s utter incompetence, they’d have the status quo locked down forever. They don’t give a fuck about anyone but themselves; so, why play bipartisanship when they already have what they want?
Do not be naïve: Electing Joe or Pete or Amy or Beto to “sit down” with McConnell and his men is not going to change the way Republicans operate. The Republicans have what they want and they will fight to keep it that way. Democrats, desperate to deal for the sake of dealing, pimp conservative solutions only to be rebuffed. By doing this over and over and over, Democrats have allowed Washington’s political center to move right (while the country moves left). Republicans might not want compromise but they are happy for us to move further right.
How far to the right are Democrats like Biden willing to go for the sake of a deal? Sit down with segregationists and they accept white supremacy as a reasonable place to negotiate from; Jim Crow becomes an “acceptable alternative” to slavery. Sit down with men who want to ban all abortion and curb contraception; Misogyny becomes a mainstream political position. Debate gay marriage or the trans bathroom issue; LGBTQ people become half-citizens. Tell me Joe: Where is the bipartisan sweet spot on kids in cages? How do we cut a baby in half?
I have no problem with a bipartisanship where all parties negotiate honestly from positions that respect democracy, equality, and the common good. However, when one side is intent on using the illusion of bipartisanship as a tactic to trap and kill, the only reasonable and responsible response is to dig in for a fight.
Listen, when Nelson Mandela sat down with the leader of apartheid South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, Mandela wasn’t there for there to achieve “bipartisan compromise.” Mandela did not meet with de Klerk to search for a win-win situation. He wasn’t looking to cap oppression and trade racism. Mandela sat down to end apartheid completely. Mandela had a mandate to free his people. That mandate was created by millions of people fighting in South Africa and around the world using boycotts, economic pressure, protests, riots, and even armed struggle to end apartheid. The mandate was to end the racist regime, not to “heal the nation” with an apartheid-lite compromise. It was clear to de Klerk (and the white business community) that they had two choices: Keep apartheid and face civil war and economic disaster, or the end of apartheid and figure out where to go next. De Klerk and the racists lost. Mandela and South Africa won.
I don’t expect those on Wednesday and Thursdays’ debate stage to be Nelson Mandela, however, I urge them to look to Mandela and not Biden for an acceptable way to “working across the aisle.” Build and use the support of everyday people to build power and force compromise on Republicans. Come to the table with hard goals, not a want “to heal the nation” or to deal for the sake of a deal. Mandela didn’t sit down with de Klerk for any other reason than to end a hateful system of oppression. No Democrat should sit down with the architects of American apartheid (and zero tolerance) for any other reason than to end this shit. If that gets ugly, so be it. It’s not like the status quo is a beaut.