The More Things Change: Looking Back On Presidential Calls For Bipartisanship

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I have a Time.com piece up today looking at all the bipartisan rhetoric that has suddenly snowed in Washington, D.C. My take is rather cynical, owing to the fact that both Republicans and Democrats have simply added the bipartisan calls on top of their old partisan games, a bit like a new coat of paint on a broken-down lemon.

“I want a substantive discussion,” President Obama said Tuesday, just moments before his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, stood before reporters with the words eggs, milk and bread written on his palm — a mocking jab at potential Republican 2012 contender, Sarah Palin, who was caught cribbing speech notes from her hand over the weekend.

After all, regardless of Obama’s actual convictions, calling for bipartisanship is not exactly a new device is presidential politics, and as CBS News’s Mark Knoller points out, “What these presidential appeals for bipartisanship always mean is: do it my way.” Take a look at Richard Nixon, on election night 1968, when he announced the new theme for his new administration, “Bring Us Together.” (Starting the video at 3:20, if you want to cut to the chase.)

This Nixon slogan later became a laugh line, encapsulating the raw hypocrisy that would lead to Nixon’s eventual downfall. The speech was used in a key scene of Shampoo, the great 1975 Warren Beatty comedy, as a way of symbolizing the total bankruptcy of American political authority; “Bring Us Together” was the ironic title of Leon Panetta’s 1971 tell-all memoir about his firing from the Nixon administration.

Knoller, who has covered every president since Gerald Ford, brings us some other gems from the past:

“We must put aside our political differences if we’re ever to set our economy to rights,” said President Reagan in 1982.

“It is time to put aside partisan rivalries and work together for our nation’s future,” said President Reagan in 1987 in trying to get Congress to enact deficit reduction

“We must put aside partisanship for the sake of our nation,” said the first President Bush in 1990 in appealing for congressional cooperation on the budget.

“We must now put aside bitterness and rancor, move beyond partisanship,” urged President Clinton in 1993 in trying to get Congress to pass his economic plan.

The underlying problem is structural. The American people want bipartisanship, and both Republicans and Democrats want to claim bipartisanship because it will help them win. But winning, still, is the ultimate goal–either in legislation or in elections–and the current political environment is a zero sum game. Ironically, this puts us in a sort of death spiral of cynicism: The American people demand real results, not phony posturing, and the politicians respond with more phony posturing to serve their own interests. Flush. Repeat. Flush. Repeat.

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