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Source: The Globe & Mail, 1-25-11

…History suggests Abraham Lincoln’s faith in “the better angels of our nature” has been a fleeting sentiment in American politics. Indeed, his 1861 inaugural appeal to secessionists preceded by only five weeks the outbreak of the paradoxically named Civil War.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, with its “self-evident” truths, among them the belief that all men are created equal. Yet, while campaigning for president in 1800, his political pamphlets derided John Adams as “having a hideous hermaphroditical character.”

“Politics could get very raw and tough in those days,” McGill University history professor Gil Troy explained in an interview. But incivility in American politics “has waxed and waned.”

The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood human nature. They wanted to prevent American society from degenerating into rigid, ideologically driven factions – and their potential for destructive conflict. They designed a political system to favour consensus over confrontation.

“They hoped there would be enough countervailing forces and conflicting loyalties, and enough of a sense of a common cause and big-picture nationalism, that there wouldn’t be these permanent parties,” Prof. Troy said.

Instead, rabid partisanship is as much a pillar of American politics as the separation of powers. And it is no coincidence that the current language of political debate rivals in vitriol the worst periods of past two centuries.

“What’s going on in our politics is a reflection of what’s going on in our culture,” Prof. Troy, an American native, added. “We’re in a phase in our history where our culture’s become extremely vulgar. The blogosphere is extremely shrill.”…

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By Gil Troy, Bipartisan Policy Center, Aug. 20, 2009

Coach Vince Lombardi famously proclaimed: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Actually, in American democratic politics, winning is only half the battle. Presidents need a workable consensus, not just slim victories. That is why bipartisanship is not just a posture. It must be more than serving cookies to opponents in cozy settings. And bipartisanship is not just a tactic. America’s greatest presidents understood that bipartisanship is crucial because leadership is not just about imposing a policy on the people but getting it accepted and implemented.

Although we usually talk about “consent of the governed” only when we learn about the American Revolution, no American leader should forget that our democratic system rests on a voluntary bargain between the leader and the led. Winning big fights by small margins, imposing radical changes on the people despite slim margins of support, risks the goodwill that helps “the governed” grant their “consent.” Al Gore has challenged us to beware our “carbon footprints”: leaders must avoid leaving a “toxic footprint” when wielding power in a democracy. The bigger the change a president seeks, the more important it is for the president to build consensus.

American’s greatest presidents were often visionaries who understood that winning elegantly by building a broad coalition was as important as whether they won. At a key moment during the struggle to pass the Social Security Act of 1935, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s key advisers, Rexford Tugwell stopped opposing the payroll tax. He still believed it was regressive, unfairly burdening the poor. Nevertheless, he recalled, he and another Roosevelt ally Harry Hopkins realized they “wanted a social security system much more than we wanted our own bill. And when the time came we stopped arguing.” Roosevelt himself took a long-term, consensus-building view. He described Social Security, his masterpiece, as a “cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” In that spirit, the Social Security Act passed by lopsided votes of 371 to 33 in the House and 76 to 6 in the Senate.

The Social Security Act broke with America’s constitutional tradition of small government and political culture of self-reliance. The bipartisan backing this radical piece of legislation received was critical to its becoming perhaps the most important law passed in the 20th century, and a given in the American system. Within two decades, the first Republican president to serve since the Democratic New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower, was explaining to his brother Edgar Eisenhower, a doctrinaire conservative, that the number of Americans opposing the welfare state, including Social Security, was “negligible and they are stupid.” President Eisenhower warned that any political party that failed to accept the new consensus would wither. Franklin Roosevelt’s instincts for bipartisanship in the 1930s – reciprocated by most Republicans then — flourished into a lasting consensus.

Both Democrats and Republicans who want to solve the health care crisis – and other crises in America today – should learn from FDR that going broad and bipartisan is the way to go.

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-20-10

A year ago, on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was the avatar of American hope, the yes we can man, promising to redeem America – and the world. A year later, his election to the presidency remains his greatest accomplishment. But his anniversary comes during a slump. His first Christmas in office was ruined by al-Qaida’s attempt to down a commercial jet, mocking his efforts to end the war on terror.

His first New Year’s Day in office marked the passing of a deadline he imposed on Iran as it gallops toward nuclear status, which the mullahs contemptuously ignored. And his first anniversary coincided with the stunning loss of what Democrats arrogantly called “Ted Kennedy’s seat” to a Republican upstart. The Massachusetts mess reflects a national problem. Polls show independent voters abandoning Obama on an unprecedented scale, even as Democrats still support the rookie president.

In fairness, being president in 2009 was not easy. When Obama started running, he, like most people, assumed the good times would continue. Bill Clinton can tell his successor that it is a lot more fun to preside over prosperity than manage a recession.

But many of Obama’s problems are Obama’s fault. In 2008, candidate Obama promised to lead from the center. He sang a song of modern American nationalism, a “yes we can” credo of working together, seeking the national sweet spot where most Americans could agree.

In his best-selling book The Audacity of Hope, Obama promised to govern as a post-Reagan liberal, understanding that big government solutions cannot answer every American problem, that culture counts and that forging compromise and building consensus could move America beyond a politics of slim, polarizing victories and partisan vilification.

Alas, in his big push for health care reform, Obama deputized the partisan, ideologically-charged Democrats in Congress to draft the legislation, and accepted pushing for a marginal victory rather than nurturing a broad-based bipartisan coalition

The Republicans share the blame. The party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush has become the party of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, shrill, demagogic, adolescent, obstructionist. Quick to criticize but slow to envision constructive alternatives, the Republicans have been the party of “no we won’t” to Obama’s “yes we can.”

AS OBAMA deepens the budget deficit, Republicans suffer from deficient leadership. On Sunday, when Obama campaigned in Massachusetts for Martha Coakley, her opponent Scott Brown held a “people’s rally” without national politicians, generating star power from a pitcher, Curt Schilling, a quarterback, Doug Flutie, and an actor, John Ratzenberger, who played the kooky mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers.

Still, Obama’s healing magic was supposed to transcend the partisan divisions, and his efforts have been too half-hearted given the depth of the divide. The president needed to serve up serious models of reconciliation and joint envisioning on health care rather than simply serving cookies to some Republican congressional guests at last year’s Super Bowl.

Abroad, America’s enemies have been even more uncooperative. Obama has shown Carteresque instincts, punishing friends while kowtowing to enemies, appeasing dictators while disappointing dissidents, viewing terrorism as a police matter not a military threat. All too often, his instincts have been wrong. He has been far too measured in reacting to the “Green Revolution” in Iran, protecting his thus far feeble outreach to the mullahs while underestimating just how much he could have helped Iran’s protesters given the international pop star he has become.

He first reacted to the Fort Hood massacre legalistically, treating it as a regrettable criminal deviation rather than as a link in an unholy jihadist chain targeting Americans, Westerners, innocents. And by embracing the narrative that Israeli settlements are the biggest obstacles to Middle East peace, Obama clumsily bolstered Palestinian rejectionists, who happily placed more preconditions on Israel before even beginning negotiations while shifting attention away from their genocidal refusal to accept its existence, the true heart of the problem.

Nevertheless, Obama has disappointed his leftist allies by staying in Iraq, sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and approving drone air strikes in Pakistan. These moves reflect the kind of centrist pragmatism Obama peddled in his campaign, rather than the knee-jerk leftism he has too frequently relied on in fighting the recession, seeking a needed solution to the health care problem and dealing with Iran, the Palestinians and the Saudis.

HEREIN LIES the path to redemption. Americans still like their new president and want him to succeed. “No Drama, Obama” has assembled a strong team with few embarrassments, scandals or distractions from the people’s business, thus far. Obama himself has come across as serious, sober, scandal-free and still seductive, not yet frittering away all that rhetorical and political magic he deployed so effectively in 2008 to dazzle America and the world.

In the 1980s, conservatives used to cry “Let Reagan be Reagan,” urging White House aides to banish the too-pragmatic, centrist and accommodating Reagan leading America in favor of the right-wing anti-communist they adored. Today, pragmatists and centrists must cry “Let Obama be Obama,” urging his aides to banish the big-government-oriented, budget-busting, war-on-terror-negating, 1960s liberal he appeared so frequently to be this past year in favor of the more moderate, restrained, realistic, post-partisan visionary he promised to be last year.

It is true that, historically few presidents have been able to build popularity their second year, and that it has long been difficult for presidents to free themselves from the gravitational pull of a congressional majority. But Barack Obama did not become president by remaining imprisoned by historical precedents.

Just as his “yes we can” campaign broke free of the shackles of the past, in this, his sophomore year, America’s rookie president must break free from the shackles of liberal Democratic orthodoxy.

In 2004, Barack Obama wowed America with a vision of a 21st century, post-baby-boomer liberal nationalism. He synthesized the liberal idealism of the ’60s with the conservative anti-government skepticism of the ’80s, balancing the selfishness of the 1980s with the altruism of the 1960s, while embracing America as a positive, powerful force for freedom and justice in the world without delusions that undermine the primary national mission of self-preservation. Let us hope that Obama sets the “reset button” on his own presidency in 2010, for his sake, America’s sake and the world’s sake.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-16-09

When Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine voted for the Senate Finance Committee’s health bill this week, Democrats rejoiced. “We have today a bipartisan bill,” White House Press Secretary Joe Gibbs exulted. While it made sense for Democrats to welcome Snowe’s support after an excruciating, high-stakes process, one moderate maverick crossing the aisle does not make the bill truly bipartisan. Mistaking a deviation for a trend in politics is like mistaking one defection for a peace treaty during wartime.

Wherever one stands on the health care debate, and on Senator Snowe’s decision, it is misleading to call this week’s tokenism bipartisanship. True bipartisanship means working together, building bridges, finding common interests, forging consensus. Bipartisanship is Republicans and Democrats spurred by the graciousness of John McCain and Barack Obama, celebrating the election of the first African-American President last November. Bipartisanship is McCain and 13 other centrist Senators creating a “Gang of Fourteen” to approve Republican judicial nominations so as to head off the “nuclear option” threatening Senate prerogatives Democrats were enjoying. And bipartisanship is the shared feelings of mourning mingled with patriotism after 9/11, epitomized by dozens of tearful, subdued members of Congress spontaneously singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps hours after the downing of Flight 93, which may have been targeting that very site.

Historically, true bipartisanship occurred when righteous renegades or statesmanlike party leaders led others to create a broad coalition, even if reluctantly. Back in 1964, Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader, was the key figure in breaking the 83-day filibuster against the landmark Civil Rights Bill. President Lyndon Johnson gave Senator Dirksen his famous “treatment,” understanding the secret formula for Congressional cajolery: one part flattery, one part bribery, leavened by a sense of history. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, deployed by Johnson as point man, recalled wooing Dirksen aggressively but elegantly: “I began a public massage of his ego, and appealed to his vanity. I said he should look at this issue as ‘a moral issue, not a partisan one.’ The gentle pressure left room for him to be the historically important figure in our struggle, the statesman above bipartisanship….” More crassly, Humphrey admitted he even would have been willing to kiss “Dirksen’s ass on the Capitol steps.”

Humphrey finally succeeded without going that far. Dirksen broke the filibuster, quoting Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality … in education and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied it is here.” The cloture vote passed with a surprisingly wide margin of 71 to 29. When asked how he became a force pushing for civil rights Dirksen grandly replied, “I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind.”

Dirksen’s sense of history made him immortal – they named a Senate Office building after him, among other things. Moreover he saved the Republican Party. Today, whatever else their standing with African-Americans may be at any particular moment, Republicans can say with pride that they helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, thanks to Everett Dirksen.

Similarly, in the 1940s, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg helped lead his party and the nation away from a pinched, provincial, isolationism. President Harry Truman could construct his emerging Cold War foreign policy as bipartisan, thanks especially to Vandenberg. On Friday, April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, Truman lunched with seventeen congressional leaders. Vandenberg hailed this unprecedented move for ending Franklin Roosevelt’s era of presidential unilateralism. Vandenberg’s pronouncement that “politics stops at the water’s edge” built popular consensus behind America’s containment strategy. Vandenberg remained a Republican and occasionally contradicted the President, saying that frank exchanges facilitated true unity. The senator saw himself leading the “loyal opposition” putting “national security ahead of partisan advantage.”

Senator Vandenberg’s journey from ardent partisan isolationist to leading bipartisan interventionist reflected the massive ideological shift Franklin Roosevelt facilitated, and Harry Truman completed. Vandenberg’s rift with the Republican isolationists underlined the continuing American resistance to becoming a world superpower. America did not even have a standing army. Many isolationists such as “Mr. Republican,” Ohio Senator Robert Taft, reluctantly accepted the fight against fascism but hoped returning to normalcy included restoring America’s characteristic insulation.

Facing a divided country and a treacherous world, Truman crusaded for cooperation. In his first speech to Congress, on April 16, 1945, Truman said only “a united nation deeply devoted to the highest ideals” could provide the “enlightened leadership” the world needed. This strategy, and both Vandenberg’s and Truman’s good works, were vindicated repeatedly, culminating with Soviet Communism’s collapse, which historians credit as a bipartisan victory.

By contrast, a century earlier the “Compromise of 1850” was not much of a compromise — or too much of a compromise. No one was happy. Henry Clay’s nationalist attempt to craft an omnibus package had failed, rejected in the summer of 1850. The legislation passed – but ultimately failed – because the young Democratic Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas crafted a series of shifting congressional coalitions passing individual parts of the legislation, reflecting sectional differences not national concerns. Southerners supported the individual planks which pleased Southerners, while Northern representatives endorsed the pro-Northern legislation. There was no reconciliation, legislative or otherwise. The misnamed Compromise of 1850 failed to find common ground or common terms, the essential elements of bipartisanship. In playing to sectional differences not splitting the difference, the Compromise spread the pain without consolidating any gain.

Senators Dirksen and Vandenberg made history because they were not renegades but pioneers, leading their reluctant, partisan followers across the Red Sea to the promised land of bipartisanship to benefit America. Presidents Johnson and Truman – with assists from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others — understood that bipartisanship is not about luring one or two mavericks across the aisle, but convincing a broad swath of citizens and leaders that change is coming, and better to be on the right side of history.

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