The Myth of Partisanship

Politics are not always as starkly divided as we might think

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Kevin Dietsch / UPI / LANDOV

President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush arrive in the East Room for the unveiling ceremony of Bush's official portrait at the White House on May 31, 2012.

It was, perhaps, the best line of the day. Last week, in a warm East Room ceremony, former President George W. Bush said he was glad that his official portrait was ready for the White House, not least because now President Obama could wander the halls, gaze up at it and wonder, “What would George do?”

(MORE: George Walker Bush and Presidents in Profile: 20 Portraits from the White House Archives)

There were laughs all around, but the joke cut close to an important truth about Obama, who has taken a tough and thus far effective approach to the war on terrorism, one not that dissimilar from Bush’s. It was widely noted last week that from the killing of Osama bin Laden to the rise in drone attacks to the President’s personal authority over a terrorist “kill list,” the incumbent administration has conducted an antiterrorism campaign that makes the 2008 Republican claims about Obama’s potential weakness as a Commander in Chief seem particularly silly.

If you accept the conventions of our political conversation, then you have to believe we live in a Hobbesian world that is in a constant state of war. In truth, however, American politics is largely driven less by starkly competing ideologies than by an establishment party with two wings.

Obama’s antiterrorism record is one example; another set of remarks from a former President last week made a similar point in another realm. On CNN, Bill Clinton offered the not especially radical view that Mitt Romney is qualified to be President and that private equity has a role to play in the economy.

(MORE: Who Is More Thoughtful — Romney or Obama?)

“I don’t think we ought to get into the position where we say, ‘This is bad work, this is good work,’” Clinton said, adding, “There’s no question that, in terms of getting up, going to the office and basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”

The next day, after the remarks were seen as a proto-Romney endorsement, Clinton clarified, “I said, you know, Governor Romney had a good career in business and he was a governor, so he crosses the qualification threshold for him being President. But he shouldn’t be elected, because he is wrong on the economy and all these other issues. So today, because I didn’t attack him personally and bash him, I wake up to read all these stories taking it out of context as if I had virtually endorsed him, which means the Tea Party has already won their first great victory: ‘We are supposed to hate each other to disagree.’ That is wrong.”

There are important issues — vital issues, of war and peace and of equity and social justice — on which the Democratic and Republican parties disagree. Last week was a reminder, though, that politics are not always as starkly divided as we might think.

Or, more precisely, it was a reminder that practitioners of politics seem to think in more nuanced terms about their opponents. Which leads to an uncomfortable question: How much of the prevailing rhetoric about difference is sound and fury, signifying little?

MORE: Why Obama Deserves to Lose in 2012