The Causes Of Our Partisan Civil War

Dan Balz begins a long, five (computer) page article in the Washington Post attempting to assess the blame for Obama’s failure to change Washington by quoting a snippet of his soaring rhetoric in January 2008 after winning the Iowa primary, words that now “sound quaint, even naive.”

“You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington,” the then-senator from Illinois said that winter night in Des Moines. “To end the political strategy that’s been all about division and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states. We are choosing hope over fear. We’re choosing unity over division and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”

So, Balz asks, who’s to blame for what went wrong?

Why has President Obama fallen so far short of what he so passionately described as a candidate four years ago? To the partisans on both sides, the answers are simple — and fundamentally at odds.

The president’s advisers contend that Republicans chose the course of obstruction and intransigence from the day Obama was sworn in….

To Republicans, it is the story of a president who arrived in Washington with big majorities in the House and Senate and decided to ram through a series of liberal initiatives with little regard to the ideas or sensibilities of the other party.

On its surface (and an expansive surface it is) Balz’s article amounts to a very long “he said, she said” traipse through the bitter partisan divides of the Obama presidency to date — the stimulus, health care, Simpson-Bowles, the debt ceiling debacle, etc., etc. Reporting each side’s blame of the other at least provides the appearance of fairness and balance, but despite that appearance the article founders on — because it doesn’t even recognize — the fact, long known to historians, that judgments of causation inevitably turn to a large degree on what is assumed as given and what contingent, and even on the judge’s preference for what should have happened. (For a philosopher’s astute discussion of this issue, see William H. Dray, “Some Causal Accounts of the American Civil War,” Daedalus 91 (1962): 578-92.)

Here is a perfect example of Balz’s no doubt sincere effort to be fair stumbling over his implicit Democratic bias:

That Obama ran into a wall of opposition from the Republicans on many of those initiatives is indisputable. What is at odds in these varying interpretations is whether anything might have changed that. Republicans say it could have been different. But there is little evidence that, once their leadership decided to oppose Obama, there was much he could have done to win them over — and there are plenty of examples showing how dug in they were.

Balz could as easily — and, importantly, as accurately — have said that “once Obama decided to offer a highly partisan, left leaning [stimulus, health care bill, whatever] there was little the Republicans could have done save capitulating, which is not compromise, and there are plenty of examples showing how unwilling the president was to accept any  Republican input on his proposals.”

The crucial question here seems to be a question of timing: which came first, the president’s decision to offer a highly partisan program with no bi-partisan input or room for compromise or the Republicans’ decision to oppose it? Seems to, but is not, for the fundamental question here is not who did what first but which behavior was a given in the situation and which contingent. There is no way to determine the cause of our partisan civil war, which in effect means deciding who’s mainly to blame for it, apart from one’s view of what should have happened.

I started to expound on my view that facts alone can rarely provide conclusive answers to questions concerning the causation of controversial events, but then I remembered that I’ve already done so, and in the context of the early appearance of the very issues Balz discusses here. Rather than simply point to that post I’m going to include it, since it complements and concludes what I set about saying here.

Causation And Our Partisan Civil War

28 February 2010

As any professional (or amateur or former) historian can tell you, causation is a tricky business, often fraught with more moral or political judgment than scientific analysis.

Slavery, for example, is widely thought to be “the” cause of the Civil War, but that view arguably assumes something that shouldn’t be assumed. The desire to protect the institution of slavery was at the core of the decision of the various Southern states to secede, but it was the Northern refusal to allow peaceful secession that precipitated the actual outbreak of hostilities. Slavery may have caused secession, but did secession cause the war, or was the response to secession the cause? These questions cannot be answered by accumulating more facts.

Similarly, the revisionist school of Civil War historians in the mid-20th century frequently blamed the often moralistic abolitionists for making compromise impossible, but there is no objective, scientific way to say their extreme response to evil was the cause of war rather than the extreme evil to which they were responding. To say they were “the” or even “a” cause of war is to say they shouldn’t have acted the way they did, but that is a matter of moral and political judgment, not fact.

I was reminded of the Civil War, as I frequently am, by our current partisan civil war, and specifically by the passage below from the current dean of establishment punditry, David Broder.

Broder cited new polls from Republican pollster Bill McInturff finding “striking” numbers: voters oppose the Democratic health bills by 52% to 40%,

with more than twice as many strongly opposed as are strongly supportive.

By a similar margin, 54 percent to 42 percent, they support the Republican argument for starting over and focusing on smaller pieces of legislation embodying bipartisan agreement, rather than merging the more comprehensive reform bills passed by the House and Senate….

Moving on to the health care summit, Broder continued:

A bit later in the day, during the session at Blair House, Obama cited other polls showing broad support for provisions in the pending bills that would change insurance rules to tear down barriers for those with pre-existing illnesses and remove the caps on benefit payments.

But armed with McInturff’s evidence that those who have been following the debate most closely and those most likely to vote in November are swinging to the Republican side of the argument — just as they did in 1994 – the GOP legislators at Obama’s summit resisted his efforts to draw them onto common ground.[Emphasis added]

Wait a minute here. Who’s resisting whom? Did Broder forget that he had just finished saying that it was the Republicans who wanted to focus on “smaller pieces of legislation embodying bipartisan agreement,” and the Democrats who wanted “comprehensive reform”? How, then, did the Republicans all of a sudden become the villains who “resisted [Obama’s] efforts to draw them onto common ground”?

Easy. They weren’t acting the way Broder would have had them act, just as the abolitionists didn’t respond to the evil of slavery in the calmer manner preferred by the revisionist historians.

The temptation here is to throw up our interpretive hands and conclude, as Balz does when his Democratic bias is not controlling, that if you’re a Democrat, Obama’s failure to change Washington was caused by Republican intransigence, and if you’re a Republican it was caused by Obama’s rigid and uncompromising Democratic partisanship. But in an attempt to avoid that temptation, here’s my view: Obama offered two soaring and some would say fanciful promises in his 2008 campaign: “changing Washington” by “choosing unity over division” was one, but equally important was his promise to “fundamentally transform” the United States.

Those two goals, the first embodying bipartisanship and the second precluding it, were fundamentally incompatible, and Obama has consistently chosen the latter.




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