Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The price of unity: part II

The thing about political unity is, I'm a fan. A big fan in fact. Not only does it provide some of my favourite rhetorical moments in an Obama speech but I actually believe there is a serious strategic imperative to it. Let's think about those two aspects before we consider where we go from here with regard to Obama, the GOP and the stimulus.

Rhetorically, unity is a beautiful, moving theme, The first half of Obama's acceptance speech at the Convention I found to be clever but conventional. The second half, where he spoke of both the power and practice of unity made my heart soar:

"We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.  The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.  I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.  Passions fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.  This too is part of America's promise - the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort."

That's the kind of unity I want: finding common ground where there has been division both needless and painful. What I don't want is to give away our values and our moment for the sake of attempting unity where in reality it does not exist. Rachel Maddow's "I won" segment last night captured this aspect of the issue beautifully.

As I struggled over this issue at lunch Frank reminded me that the thing about real bi-partisanship is, that you have to have a serious partner. In their treatment of the Administration's stimulus proposal there is little sign that the GOP is ready to be a real partner. And if the rhetorical lift was all that there was to it I'd be prepared to dismiss it out of hand and move forward as a good partisan once more, but alas there's more to unity then just language.

The rhetorical and emotional upsides of unity aside, there is a strategic aspect to it and that is the idea that one of the big reasons why government in the last 20 years has been as ineffective as it has been because of the lack of unity. Think Healthcare in '93, Social Security reform in '05 or the so-called War On terror, let alone Iraq. Where there is a lack of fundamental agreement, then it becomes very difficult to execute policy and achieve major outcomes, because the chances are you only passed your legislation by a hairsbreadth and then those that oppose you waged a guerrila campaign to undermine your efforts in practice thereafter.

More conceptually, where a lack of unity in the national polity exists there is a lack of will and will, as Clausewitz noted, is often the very essence of victory. Col. Harry Summers in his brilliant Clausewitzian analysis of Vietnam, 'On Strategy' concluded that lack of national unity behind that war was a  key cause of US failure as it manifested in a lack of national will with degenerative effects throughout the polity. If such is the case in foreign policy, how much more so the domestic polity?

Thus, Obama's paen to unity makes sense in both rhetorical and strategic terms. More unity = more force. More force = more results. Ta daaaa.

But what do you do when unity is unachievable for lack of a serious partner? Many, including myself at times argue for retrenching back to a more partisan line, but that still leaves open the key questions for understanding the current Washington situation: what do you do with the Republicans? And what kind of stimulus is actually needed? It is to these questions that we must next turn our attention.

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