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Catch of the Day: Hooray for Partisanship

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Catch of the Day goes to health-care economist Aaron Carroll, who refutes a complaint that President Barack Obama rejected bipartisanship when he rammed through his health-care law. According to the critic, Ron Fournier of the National Journal, Obama should have accepted a scaled-up version of  Romneycare. 

“Obama surrendered his mantle of bipartisanship, and Democrats muscled through a one-sided law,” Fournier wrote.

But that formulation is absurd. As Carroll says:

Is there anyone who disagrees that the ACA was an attempt to bring Governor Romney’s Massachusetts-style health care reform to the nation? We can agree that the final specifics leave some differences between the two, but is anyone contesting that the ACA is not a direct descendant of  Romneycare?

Fournier insists that no matter what happens in Washington, both sides must be at fault. Matt Yglesias points out why this is  pernicious. As long as “neutral” pundits are going to blame both sides for anything that goes wrong, the out-party will have the ability to make the in-party look bad to those pundits simply by refusing to go along.*

This isn't to single out Fournier. His position is only the most cartoonish version of the  blind belief among many "neutral" pundits that bipartisanship is the only thing that matters, not just on health care but on practically anything.

Fournier applies his everyone-is-at-fault theory to health care, energy, the budget, the economy and more. But instead of presenting them as his preferences, which is what they are, he's posing as an unbiased observer. Instead of saying "I want," he's saying, "We need."

The assumption in this position is that every problem has a common-sense solution we can all agree on,  if only parties and politicians would get out of the way. That isn't true.

Politics is about legitimate disagreements, whether they’re based on interests (energy-producing states honestly disagree with energy-consuming states) or on ideology (liberals want government-guaranteed health insurance for all; conservatives don’t). Or, as is usually the case, some combination of that.  Sometimes, yes, compromise can produce good policy; sometimes there are simply going to be winners and losers.

In democracies we are entitled to advocate for our individual preferences, but we normally express those preferences in terms of the common good. The problem with the Fournier point of view is that it bullies those who hold other positions.

There’s nothing self-evident about supporting Obamacare (or whatever Fournier thinks a national version of Romneycare might look like).  And while supporters of the health-care law are the ones picking on Fournier today, conservative opponents have an even stronger case against his formulation.

Why should they have to support "Romneycare," a reform passed by Massachusetts Democrats (and accepted by a then moderate Republican governor)? They don’t, of course.

In a democracy, we hold elections. The winners, within the rules, make policy. Yes, it gets messy. It’s supposed to. To throw up one’s hands and declare that everyone should be settling on some correct policy is much worse than partisanship. It's a rejection of everything democracy really is.

Yes, it makes me cranky. Nice catch!

*Yglesias and others can overstate this point. Obamacare would be more popular if it had been a consensus bill. But that wasn’t going to happen, because most Republicans objected to any national health insurance. The law could have been bipartisan in the way that immigration reform was last year in the Senate; it could have been passed with mostly Democrats plus a handful of Republicans, and those moderate Republicans could have secured modest changes in exchange for their votes. But most Republicans would have opposed it in 2009 and afterward.  And the structure of the law  made it likely that once it became controversial, it was going to poll badly.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net