b) Bipartisanship in the United States

 

Throughout their history, the American people have been represented in Congress and the White House primarily by two major parties. There have been a multitude of third parties, a few of them with the power to determine the outcome of national elections, yet national and international policymaking has been dominated by the two-party system. Hence, the term « bipartisanship » to designate periods of inter-party cooperation. Bipartisanship designates the attempt or the political necessity for the President to garner votes from both Democratic and Republican congressmen. It is therefore a political consensus on one political issue. Anything bipartisan is supported by the two opposing parties. Bipartisanship is once again debated in the United-States a few months after Obama’s victory because of the specific answers required by the unprecedented economic downturn. Obama’s Stimulus bill’s receiving no crossover vote from the Republicans in the House has put bipartisanship in the limelight. It may be equated with the absence of politics or political weakness. As a matter of fact, legislators, if they stick to what they promised their constituents, must make the minimum compromise necessary to pass a legislation while ensuring a majority. Si is bipartisanship a political scourge, a myth or a pragmatic strategy ?

            History seems to indicate that bipartisanship is most likely when the political parties are competitive and when the national economy is growing. It is therefore hardly surprising that Republicans should have expressed united opposition against Obama’s major bill. David S. Broder therefore concludes that “Barack Obama’s big talk about bipartisanship is kaput”.  Republicans have been accused of obduracy (line 20). Obama’s failure at reaching a consensus over his stimulus package, has spurred some observers to consider that he should pay less attention to the other party. The question worth asking is the following : should critical time periods lead to bipartisanship ? George Washington believed that partisan strife and conflicts would deal a blow at the new American nation. Obama has expressed his wish to overcome bipartisanship and called for cooperation between the two parties. Bush’s foreign policy had strengthened the political divide between the two parties. Obama reckons that a united stance from the Americans would be more efficient. In the Senate he has therefore worked with the Republicans to advance important initiatives. Biden and Obama are seeking bipartisan unity on foreign policy. He has set up Consultative Groups gathering congressional leaders from both parties to work on foreign policy priorities. When a country is in dire straits, it seems unity would strengthen power and help the nation recover from a blow. But is bipartisanship just “kind words and good intentions” as James Morone puts it ?

 

James Morone’s analysis released in the New York Time raised a lot of dust. He argued that  American bipartisanship was nothing but a myth ? (line 13) Not sharing this view, the Washington Post journalist argues that had Obama failed to negotiate with a handful of Republicans, his bill would not have been voted. This is a case for bipartisanship. Bipartisanship can be condemned for ideological reasons : some argue that even after Obama’s landslide victory, a credible opposition may be needed in order to hold the government to account or to offer a competing ideological stance. However, it comes in handy when a bill must be voted. Indeed, more generally speaking, bipartisanship is a strategy to avoid obstructionism. In the Senate a minority may provoke the failure of the majority. This is not the case in the House, where the minority is a passive observer. Senators indeed used to have the right to unlimited debate to fight a bill receiving the majority’s approval. Minority obstructionism is the privilege of the Senate : each and every Senator is allowed to speak  as long as he deems it necessary. President Woodrow Wilson had rule 22 voted, allowing the Senate to close debate with a two-third majority vote. This provision is known as “cloture”. One of the consequences of this political proceeding is that, in most cases, a bill has to be debated over with the opposition before it gets to Congress. Bipartisanship can be deemed a pragmatic solution to political divides. On the Home Front, during the Clinton era, the Democrats had to reach out Republicans to reform health care. Obama alike would need the support of some Republicans to increase health care. It is therefore indispensable to hold debates with the other party before a bill is voted. The two major parties are often more pragmatic than ideological. The president must be willing to consult with leaders of both parties, especially those senators who can assist the administration in gaining broad-based support. He must appoint members of both parties to serve on U.S. delegations to important international conferences. He must be amenable to modifications, amendments, revisions, and changes in treaties or legislation and administer those policies in such a way as to help win the widest support in Congress and in the body politic. Bipartisanship does not preclude differences but should, as much as possible, secure general agreement on a course of action before it becomes the victim of partisan squabbling.

Although Democrats and Republicans fought bitterly over domestic social and economic issues, they were not clearly divided over foreign policy matters. Underlying bipartisanship is the hope that the United States can present a unified voice in international relations. Bipartisanship is usually associated with an activist, interventionist foreign policy such as that seen during World War II and the period of the Cold War through Vietnam. President George H. W. Bush’s decision to go to war in 1990–1991 to evict Iraq from Kuwait won widespread bipartisan support. In the beginning of Bush’s term, there was no repeat of the deep divisions that had accompanied the Vietnam War. In foreign affairs, Bill Clinton had promised, in rather vague terms, to address the problems of the post–Cold War era. The United States, he said, should provide aid to the former Soviet Union to help it down the road to democracy and free enterprise. Advancing democracy should be the object of « a long-term Western strategy, » he said. Clinton called for an American-led campaign to ensure respect for human rights. In the years that followed, the Clinton administration placed peacekeeping troops in Bosnia and Kosovo to keep ethnic and religious conflicts in the former Yugoslavia from embroiling the Balkans and perhaps all of Europe in war. In 1994 the Republicans captured both houses of Congress, but conflicts over foreign policy did not split along party lines. There were certainly congressional opponents of American participation in Balkan peacekeeping operations, but that opposition was bipartisan.

To a certain extent, bipartisanship is a simplified version of American politics : on many issues, Democrats and Republicans are divided even within their parties. Energy policy is the main issue both Democrats and Republicans have agreed on.

 

 

c) Essay

 

Bipartisanship is a typically American notion that has no French equivalent. In fact there are actual differences between France and the United-States when it comes to political parties and their place within the political regime. Drawing from the text, we shall try and underscore the diverging roles of political parties in the decision-making process in the two regimes referred to above. We shall then account for these differences by outlining the main features of the French and the American electoral processes and democratic regimes.

               

                In the United States, bipartisanship is a pragmatic means of governing. As the text clearly suggests, a President may have to talk his political opponents into supporting a bill before it gets voted. As a matter of fact, several presidents have to rule over the country with a hostile majority in Congress. A staunch advocate of bipartisanship, journalist David S. Broder hints at Truman’s presidency to hammer his point home : Harry Truman was able to implement the Marshall plan thanks to Republican supporters. Reagan likewise had his first budget voted although the House of Representatives was Democratic. Besides, the political leaning in Congress in fairly unstable as one third of the Senate is elected every two years while representatives hold office for two years only. In the midterm election of 1994, with Clinton’s popularity at low ebb, Republicans gained control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. Two years later Clinton, having regained his footing, became the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second successive term in the White House. Although the Democrats retained the presidency in 1996, the Republicans kept their majorities in both the Senate and the House, marking the first time since the late 1920s that Republicans comprised a majority of the House for two consecutive sessions. The President therefore has no other choice but to play a tight political game with a shifting Congress. The journalist contends that Obama “will need Republican votes to pass the remaining parts of this program” (line 39-40). What is more, clashes and rifts over a bill may not match party divides : both Democrats and Republicans may support or oppose a bill. In France things work in a rather different way. In the legislative branch, the ideological divide between the right and the left is clearer than in the United States. No bill under scrutiny could receive votes from the opposition. French political life is consequently bipolarized rather than bipartisan. Conversely, American parties tend to adopt centrist policy positions and demonstrate a high level of policy flexibility. This enables the Republicans and the Democrats to tolerate great diversity within their ranks. U.S. presidents cannot assume that their party’s members in Congress will be loyal supporters of presidential programs, nor can party leaders in Congress expect all member of their party to vote along party lines.

 

The differences hinted at in our first paragraph stem from differences in the election process. The American political scene is dominated by two major parties and very little space is left to minority parties. This is partly due to the “winner-take-all” principle at the core of presidential elections. In each state, the party receiving the majority of the popular vote gets all the Electoral College’s votes.  The Republicans and Democrats have dominated American politics since the 1860s, and every president since 1852 has been either a Republican or Democrat. In a November 2006 Gallup Poll (a leading barometer of public opinion operated by the Gallop Organization), approximately 59 percent of Americans identified themselves as either Republicans or Democrats. Those who say they are independents normally have partisan leanings and often are more loyal to one of these two political parties than to the other. France, on the other hand, has a full-fledged multi-party system with a dizzying collection of parties with widely diverse ambitions and functions. Both the left and the right in French politics are dominated by one major party on each side, with several minor parties often involved in forming necessary parliamentary coalitions. It is, however, sometimes difficult to keep track of just which acronym is the current driving force because of the tendency for parties to merge and/or be transformed into new configurations, or for new parties to emerge almost overnight.

In France, there are much more political parties involved in the presidential race, at least in the first round. One of the constitutional requirements to become an official candidate in French presidential elections is to obtain 500 signatures of support from elected officials. With over 40,000 mayors, deputies, senators and the like, that doesn’t seem like an outrageous hurdle to overcome. A major party may have to coax a smaller one into joining or backing its leaders for the second round. Parties with fewer electors may thus have some political clout. It should be noted that the chief ambition and goal of a political party is not necessarily to see its candidate elected president of the Republic, but rather to be able to exert a measure of influence in the political process. Mid-term elections are not as frequent in France as in the United Sates but they may reverse majority in Parliament and compel a president to govern with a different majority. France has known several periods of co-habitation since the creation of the Fifth Republic : a President may have to implement his initial political agenda with a Prime Minister from a different part leading the executive.  However this situation is not quite the same as bipartisanship.

 

The American political regime is a presidential one while the French regime is a semi-parliamentary one, or a mixed one. France is often said to have had a presidentialized parliamentary regime since 1962. The presidential regime is a regime whose Constitution organizes the strict separation of the capacities executive, legislative, and legal. The American drafters of the Constitution wanted to curb the power of the government. Therefore, the president can veto a decision from the legislative (Congress) while the Congress may refuse to vote the president’s budget, therefore blocking his agenda. The carefully elaborated system of checks and balances, established by the Constitution, makes executive and legislative cooperation necessary in the development of policy. Further, the division of legislative powers between the federal and state governments, as provided in the Constitution, makes it necessary for advocates of such policies as the regulation of commerce to seek representation or strength in both the federal and state legislatures. As previously said, one of the consequences of the check-and-balance system in the United States is bipartisanship i.e. a consensus between the two major political parties. In the United States, the crises in general are avoided or overcome thanks to a broad consensus reached thanks to a tradition of compromise between the parties, and the frequent elections. Contrarily, in a parliamentary regime, the executive is dependent upon the legislative.

 

In the United States, the role of political parties springs from the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution of the United States made no provision in the governmental structure for the functioning of political parties because they believed that parties were a source of corruption and an impediment to the freedom of people to judge issues on their merits. George Washington, in accordance with the thinking of his fellow Founding Fathers, included in his cabinet men of diverse political philosophies and policies. After the Civil War, as U.S. industrialization proceeded at great speed, the Republican party became the champion of the manufacturing interests, railroad builders, speculators, and financiers of the country, and to a lesser extent, of the workers of the North and West. The Democratic party was revived after the war as a party of opposition; its strength lay primarily in the South, where it was seen as the champion of the lost Confederate cause. Support also came from immigrants and those who opposed the Republicans’ Reconstruction policies. A number of minor parties and factions emerged during the postwar period. In the long years of agricultural depression from the conclusion of the Civil War to the end of the 19th century, discontent among farmers, particularly in the western plains but also in the South, constituted a fertile source of political activity, giving rise to a considerable number of organizations. These parties of agrarian and working-class protest frequently raised issues that were taken up in subsequent years by leaders of the major parties; their own successes in elections, however, were mostly local and minor. The various movements to improve industrial working conditions and curtail the power of big business, known by the early 20th century as Progressivism, caused divisions within both parties between Progressives and conservatives. Although the Republican party regained control of the presidency during the 1920s, complex changes in political alignments were wrought by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Democratic party, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, became the sponsor of the most far-reaching social-reform legislation in the history of the U.S. Many of its policies were supported by representatives of the Republican party as well : Roosevelt managed to break the stranglehold that Republicans had held over the presidency by drawing various new forces into the Democratic party. From 1955 onward the Democrats were in control of Congress, and their leaders often cooperated with the moderate Republicans. Compared to political parties in other democratic nations, political parties in the United States tend to have relatively low internal unity and lack strict adherence to an ideology or set of policy goals.

 

 

 

Until the early 1990s, it was generally believed that parliamentary systems were inherently more stable than presidential systems. Historically, perhaps the most widely-debated has been the decision to adopt a presidential form of government. Some experts in political science hold that majoritarian structures, such as presidential regimes, are incompatible with plural societies. Indeed, presidential systems have two major faults: they are inherently inflexible and rigid, and presidential elections foster a “winner-takes-all” mentality that can exclude other groups from government. Systems in which there is a balance of power between the executive and the legislature are inherently more consensual than executive-dominant systems. There are four distinct advantages of presidential systems that are lacking in parliamentary ones: direct accountability of the executive, identifiability of the outcomes of elections, the presence of mutual checks on power, and the potential role of the president as an arbiter in the system. The fusion of powers characteristic of parliamentarism is supposed to generate governments capable of governing because they would be supported by a majority in parliament, composed of highly disciplined parties prone to cooperate with one another, which, together, would produce a decisionmaking process that is highly centralized. Presidential regimes, in turn, would frequently generate presidents who cannot count with a majority of seats in congress. Congress would be composed by individual legislators who have little incentive to cooperate with one another, with their parties or with the executive. Presidential regimes, therefore, would be characterized by weak political parties and frequent stalemates between the president and congress in a context of loose decision-making.