Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Limits to Partisanship

When George W. Bush was president his partisan supporters often urged him to take off after the partisan attacks on him. Clearly, after the contested election results of 2000 the Democrats maintained a highly partisan atmosphere for most of Bush's two terms, and the intention was to delegitimize Bush and all his works.

Should Bush have led with his fists? Many people say that a policy of overt partisan rhetoric is dangerous for a US president because he is not just head of government but head of state. Thus a partisan president is making the argument that his opponents aren't just his party's opponents but the nation's opponents. Liberals are very sensitive about this, when they are on the receiving end, as in the "love it or leave it" days of the Vietnam War. In the immediate post 9-11 period they were quick to jump on anyone that questioned their patriotism.

President Clinton was masterful at playing the role of the president of all of us and then making partisan points from a bipartisan stance. He would complain about the partisan Republicans opposing his bipartisan balanced budget.

President Obama, when running for office, spoke a lot about cynicism and harmful partisanship. But his record since winning office has been sharply partisan. And now, with his April 13 speech, he has launched a partisan attack on the Ryan Budget Plan.

I admit that I was shocked by his speech. No president in my memory has ever acted in such a partisan manner, certainly not this far from an election.

But let us forget about the propriety of his decision to go partisan, the danger of splitting the country in two. The question is: will it work. The danger is that the president may unite the country against him. And there is the risk that it will turn off middle-class white women.

One of the reasons that politics is usually all lovey-dovey is that, unlike the revolutionary time or the pre civil war era, today women have the vote. And women hate brawling. The female way of fighting is to say, prior to sticking in the knife, "bless her heart."

Jonah Goldberg has a list of wrong calls by the conventional wisdom in the last two years. Among them are the failure of the American people to support a New Deal, and failure to support a new expansion of entitlements. Maybe the failure of the conventional wisdom is centered in a lack of understanding of women. Women are much more risk-averse than men and are frightened by bold initiatives that might end in disaster.

If President Obama is scaring the pants of America's women with his partisan rhetoric he may come to regret it. Big time.

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