I propose that journalists who are pressed to use shorthand words to save space, and thus avoid complicated ideas, should be very suspicious of venerating as political virtues such simplistic expressions as “bipartisan,” “moderate” and “centrist.” These are said to be positive political attributes, the opposite of the more negative terms “partisan,” “extreme,” or “ideological.” Moderate is good; bipartisan and centrist is good; partisan, extremist, leftist or rightist is bad.
Leading political pundits, especially those who believe in our institutions, right or wrong, call for a political process that will be more bipartisan, moderate, or centrist. But are these necessarily virtues? The congressional resolution that permitted the U.S. to go to war in Iraq was celebrated as bipartisan. Were only the ideological extremists against it? A Democrat who opposed it was considered too left. But a Republican opponent, if there were any, would have been called a moderate no matter how conservative on other issues.
A Republican Senator who now has second thoughts about the war is considered a moderate, although he steadfastly supported it and virtually everything else on the president’s rather far right agenda. A Democratic Senator who supported the war and Social Security privatization but also supports abortion rights and much of the rest of the Democratic agenda is called a centrist. A Democratic Senator who supports a wholly liberal agenda, is considered extreme. Republican Senators who opposed the president’s wiretapping and torture proposals before compromising to give him what he wanted are called moderate or centrist. But the “gang of 14″ Democrats and Republicans who spared the country a good, healthy partisan legislative battle (which is what the legislature is supposed to do) were considered champions of bipartisanship although they gave us a couple of extremists on the Supreme Court.
My friend, the late Sen. Philip A. Hart, a liberal Democrat from Michigan, once told me to beware of the bipartisan legislation that passes almost unanimously. “It’s either passed because it’s long past the time when it was needed, or it’s so diluted, it means little.” The problem in the Congress is not partisanship, or even ideology but the principle on which it was founded, “self-interest rightly understood,” and a little comity.