Coppersmith: Fighting over big ideas is not only good, it’s needed - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Coppersmith: Fighting over big ideas is not only good, it’s needed

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Posted: Saturday, December 13, 2008 6:16 pm | Updated: 9:35 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Soon both parties — the Democrats in Washington, the Republicans here in Arizona — must stop talking and actually produce “change.” Unfortunately, as with TV shows, vegetables and furniture, it’s easy to convince people to demand something different, but much harder to guess what they want instead.

That shouldn’t surprise anybody. Hey, almost half the electorate is men. We frequently don’t want to drive the way we’re going, but as to where we actually should be headed? We don’t know, but we’re not asking for directions.

Of course, change is hard. In our system of government, it’s much easier playing defense, because there are many ways to stop things, but to accomplish anything, you must overcome every obstacle. And that’s difficult without a fairly dominant political philosophy or policy consensus.

If a strong majority of Americans become convinced that we should have a New Deal, or new civil rights laws, then even substantial procedural hurdles (Senate filibusters, congressional seniority, court decisions) eventually will be overcome. But without a broad consensus — if people remain conflicted between wanting a better health care system while worrying about losing what they have now — then process and delay will prevail.

It’s rare for a closely divided legislature to produce worthwhile legislation. Divided government more often leads to gridlock, which (in the absence of major crisis) may be an acceptable second choice to a majority of voters. Gridlock has little to do with tone or civility, which are more of a byproduct of a lack of consensus than its cause.

There may be legislatures where really nice key leaders manage to keep their own troops in line and still find time to build and maintain wonderful relationships across the aisle, but that must be rare — as it requires an entrenched majority that doesn’t overreach. Good luck finding that. And when legislators actually are buddies, then angry voters accuse them of being part of a self-interested club. Voters hate partisanship and bickering, while mistrusting legislators who aren’t partisan and don’t bicker.

Divided government or narrow majorities usually result in a narrow, tactical politics, where one branch sees its job as blocking the (obviously unworthy) initiatives of another branch, or the minority senses that the majority is shaky enough that the minority could block the majority from passing some of its program. With politics generally a zero-sum game; making the other side lose is often the only possible form of victory.

Whenever the parties are closely matched or government divided, people talk a lot about “governing from the center” and “taking the best ideas of both sides.” But there are two problems with that approach. First, isn’t insisting on splitting the difference between two conflicting approaches just a different form of orthodoxy, assuming that sincere and committed ideologues are always wrong? And how do you combine opposite approaches? Do you cut taxes and raise them at the same time? Decide to spend more on autism research, then cut all spending across the board, including on autism?

And second, most elections are determined not by those who follow politics deeply — the dreaded base voters, you already know whether and how we’ll vote — but by those lower-information, lower-efficacy undecided voters. Swing voters don’t follow whether an idea came from the D or R camp, or instead is some “govern from the center” synthesis. They’ll know whether something got passed, but only rarely know where it came from.

Maybe “pragmatic” compromise is the way to tackle a particular problem. But laws adopted with no bipartisan support are just as valid as those passing unanimously. Governing from the center is a tactic, not a strategy, which may not fit every circumstance.

Both parties need to be practical and tactical, but in the sense of getting things done. Big things, requiring an ideological point of view. The economy’s a wreck, the state budget a black hole. Let’s not demand that everybody work together. It’s not about personalities, or tone, or compromise. You can’t average out two different directions, you have to pick one.

We’ve got big problems. Let’s not fear fighting over big ideas.

Sam Coppersmith, Democratic party activist and former member of the U.S. House, can be reached at

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