It seems clear that the prospects for a bipartisan health care bill are diminishing with each passing day. And as far as I’m concerned that is a good thing. Nothing good, nothing resembling “reform” could come from bipartisanship in this Congress. The Republicans have no appetite for real health care reform. The health care system isn’t broken in their view. So why fix it? A few cosmetic changes maybe, but nothing more.

According to media reports, the Democrats have begun devising a strategy to pass a bill without Republican support. I applaud them. While I can understand President Obama’s desire to pass a bipartisan bill, there is nothing necessarily virtuous about bipartisanship, it should not be turned into a principle of political governance. Conversely, political partisanship is not necessarily a dirty word either. The appropriate method of governing cannot be resolved abstractly.

Process in politics is important, but it shouldn’t trump the democratic will. Millions elected Barack Obama and a new Congress in the expectation that they would bring real change to their lives. But the health care debate is making crystal clear that the Republicans and to a degree some Democrats are in no mood to assist the the legislative agenda of the Obama administration, – an agenda that the majority of Americans elected him to carry out.

The mission of the extreme right in the Republican Party (and the extreme right dominates the GOP), in fact, is to sabotage health care reform and Obama’s presidency by any means necessary. It will embrace bipartisanship only in words and only to the degree that it stalls the reform agenda of the president. Once negotiations become substantive, they turn nasty and let loose their attack dogs, including their gun toting ones, on the president and other advocates of real change.

I know the American people would like to have less rancor and partisanship in politics, but it is hard to imagine that changing anytime soon. For one thing, the extreme right turned mean spirited and divisive politics into their trademark three decades ago and there is little reason to think that will change going forward. In fact, the noise from the right wing is becoming more strident and shrill, more irresponsible since President Obama was elected.

For another thing, eras of deep going democratic reform – the 1930s and 1960s come to mind – are a product of clashing partisan interests and political coalitions. Feelings are intense, democratic life is charged, divisions along class and social lines emerge in clearer form, and social inertia gives way to social action. Like it or not, political leaders and ordinary people take sides.

Franklin Roosevelt and John L. Lewis took sides in the New Deal era; so did President Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights era. And in both eras, millions – most of whom were new to political activism – threw themselves into the struggle for progressive social change. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was nearly always necessary. Had political leaders not taken sides and had not people taken to the streets, progressive change would have died stillborn.

With the wreckage of 30 years of right-wing rule everywhere, an economic crisis of immense proportions hanging over the country, an extreme right, badly weakened, but still a part of the political equation, and powerful corporate interests and their supporters in both parties who either want to prevent or contain people’s reforms, can we move this vast country in the direction of economic justice, equality and peace without intense, sustained, and partisan struggle with an increasingly anti-corporate thrust? History and common sense say ‘no.’

A reformer from an even earlier era famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a struggle.”


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.