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Partisanship and "Moderates"

In the course of a series of posts about the alleged lack of appeal among Democrats of Barack Obama's frequent calls for bipartisanship at the new TNR campaign blog "The Stump," Noam Scheiber poses an interesting question: "Can You Be a Partisan Moderate?"

He answers the question affirmatively, citing Hillary Clinton as an example, but that the question even needs to be asked reflects a common assumption that partisanship is essentially, or at least primarily, a function of sharp ideological differentiation between the parties. And that, historically and empirically, is not necessarily borne out by the evidence.

By most standards, the most viciously partisan presidential elections in our history were during the period between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Populist uprising (1880-1892). By and large, the main issue dividing the parties in those elections was tariff policy. And lest anyone suggest these largely non-ideological contests failed to energize voters, it should be noted that they set a high plateau of eligible voter turnout--ranging from 74% to 79%--far above twentieth-century levels.

A more recent, if general, example of the divisibility of ideology from partisanship is in the contemporary politics of the South. Anyone paying real attention to southern elections these days would have to concede that despite the relative conservatism of many Democrats in the region, campaigns are generally as combative and sometimes down-and-dirty as anywhere else in the country.

And to be much more specific, despite all of Bill Clinton's supposed "triangulating" and the deals he cut with Republicans on trade, welfare reform, and the budget, anyone who lived through the Clinton administration would have a hard time accepting that this period represented a low point in partisanship, on either side.

One of the sources of this disconnect between theory and practice in terms of the correlation between ideology and partisanship is simply disagreement over the degree of differentiation that is needed to produce partisan energy. For decades prior to 1980, conservatives argued that Republican acceptance of the main tenets of the New Deal drained elections of any real reason to vote for one party over another. And today, some Democrats sincerely believe that their party's acceptance of, say, a private-sector role in health care or a legitimate U.S. national security role in the Middle East, leaves voters with no real choice and no real excitement over the outcome. Yet voters have less trouble finding significant differences between Ds and Rs.

This is not to say, I must emphasize, that ideologues don't have legitimate grounds for decrying "moderation" in either party. Agreement between the two parties to fight elections on some issues but not others, even if it doesn't reduce partisanship, could in theory and sometimes does in practice take important issues off the table. The extreme example was during the period prior to the founding of the Republican Party, when Democrats and Whigs fought violently partisan elections on a foundation of a system that avoided disputes over slavery whenever possible.

But that's precisely why those on the Left of the Democratic Party today should simply make their case that party "moderates" are wrong on real-life policy grounds, instead of arguing that they aren't partisan enough, or are cowards when it comes to opposing Republicans. Indeed, when John Edwards suggests (as Barack Obama has come close to suggesting) that the Clintons are part of the same corrupt system that produced George W. Bush, he's really saying there are some things more important than partisanship, which is undoubtedly true. Confusing this argument, as many netroots activists have done, by asserting that any Democrat who fails to oppose the GOP on every conceivable issue is actually, secretly, indifferent to partisan control of government, requires conspiracy-theory reasoning about the D.C. Democratic Establishment that loses whatever power it has when you start looking at those many Democratic centrists who work and live outside Washington and have no stake in the Beltway status quo.

For that reason, the partisanship-versus-ideology debate in the blogosphere that sites like OpenLeft is promoting is very healthy, even for "centrists." You can definitely be a highly partisan centrist, and if you take seriously claims that there's not a sufficient difference between the two parties right now, you can be a bipartisan, nonpartisan, third-partisan, or post-partisan ideologue (that, in fact, is a position that could theoretically justify Barack Obama's appeals to a new kind of bipartisanship based on a complete overturning of the current system, if he were clearer about the ideological underpinnings of his "new politics"). But the idea that all "centrists" or "moderates" or whatever you choose to call them don't want to win elections and don't viscerally dislike the other side, just doesn't pass the laugh test.