A persistent elite Washington trope, embodied by folks like Ron Fournier, says that bipartisanship is the key missing ingredient in our system of government. The two parties just need to stop their partisan bickering and join hands to hammer out serious, substantive compromises (read: slash social insurance).
It's certainly the case that because of U.S. constitutional design, compromise is necessary during times of divided government — and the ones who won't do it are ultraconservative Republicans. But there's another model of governance that gets short shrift among the lovers of bipartisanship: letting election winners implement their agenda. By providing clear lines of accountability and making clear who is responsible for which policy, allowing an election winner to govern makes democracy work.
We see this today in Kansas of all places, where Gov. Sam Brownback is in an unexpectedly tight re-election race:
Although every statewide elected official in Kansas is a Republican and President Obama lost the state by more than 20 points in the last election, Mr. Brownback's proudly conservative policies have turned out to be so divisive and his tax cuts have generated such a drop in state revenue that they have caused even many Republicans to revolt. Projections put state budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, raising questions of whether the state can adequately fund education in particular. [The New York Times]
Brownback's tax cuts were passed back in 2012 with the help of Arthur Laffer, the conservative policy hand who has made his career insisting in the teeth of contrary evidence that tax cuts increase revenue. Multiple experts warned that the Brownback-Laffer plan would actually crater the state revenue collection, but Brownback ignored them and did what he wanted. The results are in, and it turns out when you cut taxes, you decrease revenue:
Kansas has a problem. In April and May, the state planned to collect $651 million from personal income tax. But instead, it received only $369 million. [The New York Times]
Naturally, the cuts have required more cuts to critical government services, and most of the tax benefits have been vacuumed up by the rich. Worse still, the promised job-creating effects have also failed to appear. On the contrary, Kansas has actually been performing worse than its neighbors on the jobs front.
In short, movement conservatism produces garbage economic policy. But the beauty is, now that fact is obvious to almost everyone in Kansas, including a bunch of Republicans. To his credit, Brownback actually believed in his ideas and put them in place. He is now paying the price for taking that risk.
Contrast that to the elite D.C. idea of bipartisanship, in which the ancient grandees from both parties get together, and through the magic of high-minded civil discussion, iron out a compromise to cut Social Security and Medicare, preferably by enough to be called a "Grand Bargain." This has the not-coincidental effect of making it impossible for most people to figure out who is responsible for what — and very easy for either side to spin negative consequences as the other side's fault.
Now, Brownback may well pull out a victory in the end. But Kansas is a very conservative state, and he ought to be cruising to a huge reelection. Future Republicans my well try to jam through similar tax policies copy-pasted from a conservative think tank's guide to enriching the wealthy, but the colossal failure of the Brownback cuts will surely give them pause.
Government by the permanent D.C. establishment used to at least keep the country on two legs, but with ideologically well-sorted parties, one of them increasingly extreme, it's come perilously close to breaking down multiple times. When considering reforms to the structure of government, as I believe will be necessary sometime in the future, we should keep in mind stories like this one. Democracy works best when the voters have meaningful and comprehensible choices.