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What Bipartisan Means Now

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On the eve of Barack Obama's ascension to power, at candlelit dinners across Washington sponsored by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the designated theme was bipartisanship. From the speeches delivered to the choice of honorees, which included Sen. John McCain, the former secretary of state Colin Powell, and the incoming vice president, Joe Biden, the new administration expressed its fond wish for a return to the respect and civility of a bygone era. As Biden said when he addressed the guests at Union Station, following a warm introduction by retiring Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel -- and as Obama reiterated when he appeared a few minutes later -- they hope to end long decades of partisan bickering and bitterness. Recalling the words of the late Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, who supervised his political education as a freshman senator, Biden said that although it is always easy to find what is bad in a political adversary, "our job here is to find the good in them," and to seek common ground.

But when Obama delivered his stunningly eloquent and inspiring address at midday on Jan. 20, he provided a powerful hint of what "bipartisan," a term hollowed out by habitual and insincere misuse, means to him now.

"On this day" he said, "we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."

Such childish things, which he did not stoop to mention, as the scare tactics that typified the campaign against him only a few months ago. With that pithy phrase he dismissed the style of attack politics, employed by a generation of Republican strategists, that began 20 years ago with the frightening image of a black criminal named Willie Horton and was finally repudiated forever with the election of America's first black president.

However bipartisan his intentions, Obama's speech did not shrink from delineating the differences between himself and the former president who has at last departed the capital. Among several direct rebukes to his predecessor and the reigning ideology of the Republican right, the new chief executive promised, "We will restore science to its rightful place." He went on to vow that under his guidance, the nation would return to the values of the Constitution "once more," without resorting to the "false choice" between liberty and security so often imposed by the regime of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

That was not the only false choice rejected by Obama. While paying tribute to the productivity and creativity of the market, he refused to indulge the worship of the "invisible hand" so dear to Republican ideologues. The current economic crisis, he said, "has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good." With those words he enunciated the most fundamental beliefs of his party, and pledged that they will guide his administration.

This speech was neither a programmatic list nor a call to compromise. Obama laid out the challenges that face the country and explained in broad strokes how he intends to address them -- with bold action, necessary expenditure and a summoning of citizens to service. What he invited the nation to do, regardless of party, was to return to the basic American principles that made us strong and great over the past century and that were violated, discarded and mocked by those in power over the past eight years -- and through the inordinate and unwholesome influence of the far right for much longer.

He will reach out to bring the Republicans back toward the center, where he hopes that goodwill and patriotic emotion can bring us together to lift us out of the ditch into which their ideology drove us. But now the center will be found in a different place -- and bipartisanship again describes a consensus led by liberal Democrats. "The ground has shifted," he warned those who will oppose his ambitious agenda. He has earned the assumption that he means it.

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