Partisans Gone Wild

By Anne-Marie Slaughter
Sunday, July 29, 2007

A funny thing is happening in American politics: The fiercest battle is no longer between the left and the right but between partisanship and bipartisanship. The Bush administration, which has been notorious for playing to its hard-right base, has started reaching across the aisle, with its admirable immigration bill (even though it failed), with its new push for a diplomatic strategy toward North Korea and Iran, and above all with its choice of three seasoned moderates for important positions: Robert M. Gates as defense secretary, John D. Negroponte as deputy secretary of state and Robert B. Zoellick as World Bank president.

On the Democratic side, the opening last month of a new foreign policy think tank, the Center for a New American Security, struck a number of bipartisan notes. The Princeton Project on National Security, which I co-directed with fellow Princeton professor John Ikenberry, drew Republicans and Democrats together for more than 2 1/2 years to discuss new ideas, some of which have been endorsed by such presidential candidates as John McCain, a Republican, and John Edwards, a Democrat. Barack Obama is running on a return to a far more bipartisan approach to policy and a far less partisan approach to politics. (Full disclosure: I have contributed to Obama's and Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaigns.)

In short, some sanity may actually be returning to American politics. Perhaps the most interesting development is the belated realization by the Bush administration that its insistence on an ABC ("anything but Clinton") policy has proved deeply damaging.

But the predominant political reaction to this modest outbreak of common sense has been virulent opposition, from both right and left. The true believers in the Bush revolution are furious. John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sounded the alarm in February with a broadside against the agreement that the State Department and its Asian negotiating partners had reached with North Korea, warning President Bush that it contradicted "fundamental premises" of his foreign policy. Next came yet another intra-administration battle over Iran policy, with David Wurmser, a top vice presidential aide, telling a conservative audience in May that Vice President Cheney believed that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's strategy of at least talking with Iranian officials about Iraq was failing.

From the left, many progressives have responded to the foreign policy failures of the Bush administration by trying to purge their fellow liberals. Tufts professor Tony Smith published a blistering essay on Iraq in The Washington Post several months ago, attacking not neoconservative policymakers but liberal thinkers who had, he argued, become enablers for the neocons and thus were the real villains. More recently, the author Michael Lind wrote in the Nation that the "greatest threat to liberal internationalism comes not from without -- from neoconservatives, realists and isolationists who reject the liberal internationalist tradition as a whole -- but from within." He singled out Ikenberry, Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution, James Lindsay of the University of Texas at Austin and me. These "heretics," he said, "are as dangerous as the infidels." Heretics? Infidels? Sounds like the Spanish Inquisition.

In the blogosphere, pillorying Hillary Clinton is a full-time sport. Her slightest remark, such as a recent assertion that the country needs a female president because there is so much cleaning up to do, elicited this sort of wisdom: "Hillary isn't actually a woman, she's a cyborg, programmed by Bill, to be a ruthless political machine." Obama has come in for his share of abuse as well. His recent speech to Call to Renewal's Pentecost conference, in which he urged Democrats to recognize the role of faith in politics, earned him the following comment from the liberal blogger Atrios: "If . . . you think it's important to confirm and embrace the false idea that Democrats are hostile to religion in order to set yourself apart, then continue doing what you're doing." Left-liberal blog attacks on moderate liberals have reached the point where "mainstream media" bloggers such as Joe Klein at Time magazine are wading in to call for a truce, only to get lambasted themselves.

Students of American politics argue that partisan attacks have their own cycles. George W. Bush ran in 2000 on a platform of placing results over party. But after Sept. 11, 2001, the political advantages of take-no-prisoners, call-every-critic-a-traitor patriotism proved irresistible. And the political and media attack industry that has grown up as a result has too much at stake to give in to the calmer, blander beat of bipartisanship.

It's time, then, for a bipartisan backlash. Politicians who think we need bargaining to fix the crises we face should appear side by side with a friend from the other party -- the consistent policy of the admirably bipartisan co-chairmen of the 9/11 commission, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton. Candidates who accept that the winner of the 2008 election is going to need a lot of friends across the aisle -- not least to get out of Iraq -- should make a point of finding something to praise in the other party's platform. And as for the rest of us, the consumers of a steady diet of political vitriol, every time we read a partisan attack, we should shoot -- or at least spam -- the messenger.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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