Defining "Post-Partisan"

[ Posted Thursday, July 17th, 2008 – 15:09 UTC ]

What exactly does Barack Obama mean when he calls himself a "post-partisan" politician? What, indeed does "post-partisan" mean? The answer to such a basic question seems obvious, but then again maybe not, since people all across the political spectrum seem to be misunderstanding the term itself.

So, as the incomparable Dave Barry might say, it's time to play "Mister Language Person," in the hopes of clearing up some apparent confusion, on both the left and the right.

"Post-partisan," for those speaking British English, means "to mail a letter to partisan." Um, no... wait... that's not quite right. "Post-partisanship" is, of course, "an ocean-going vessel with mail for partisans on it." No, that's not it either.

All kidding aside, the word is so new that I actually couldn't find it in the online dictionary I use. From the word's roots, "post-partisan" literally means: "after partisan," or (more eloquently) "beyond partisan." Beyond partisanship means moving away from the fractured nature of partisan politics which America has been going through for the past few decades (historians would correct that to "since America began," but then pointing this fact out would not be in the post-partisan spirit, so we'll move on).

Barack Obama, by calling himself "post-partisan" is offering a double-edged sword to those who try to pin him down. To those on the left, this is a warning. To those on the right, it is a challenge, a tossing-down of the gauntlet. Neither side has really grasped what this means yet. I don't know what this will ultimately mean for Obama's chances politically, but I have to say it's been rather amusing to watch both sides get it so wrong, so consistently.

Let's start with the right. David Broder, scion of the Serious People Inside The Beltway crowd, wrote in a recent (and mostly anti-Obama) article, that Obama is an "enigma" and professed both his own confusion and that of Obama's opposition.

Broder's words:

In their effort to embarrass him, Republicans ask: Who is the real Barack Obama? Is he, as he claims, a fresh face, heralding a new era of post-partisan politics, or a cynical old-style pol making poll-driven adjustments with scant regard for principles? A protectionist or a free-trader? A corporate-basher or an ally of interest-group contributors? Is he a doctrinaire liberal, disguising himself as a late-blooming centrist?

Broder ends his article with:

Obama is making it hard for the Republicans to figure out how to attack him. The risk for him is if he also frustrates the voters who need to understand what makes him tick. They don't elect enigmas to the Oval Office.

You see, the problem is that Republicans thought they had figured out how to attack Obama -- paint him as a (cue scary music...) Liberal. This is a classic play from the GOP playbook, and they were quite comfortable in teeing up this attack for the general election campaign. "Barack Obama was named the Most Liberal Member Of The Senate!" they breathlessly espoused over and over again.

But then Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination, and started running his general election campaign. He frustrated the GOP by taking several very un-Liberal positions on things. They immediately trotted out the other old standard from their campaign playbook -- "Obama's a flip-flopper!" If you think they were embarrassed that this new attack line was in direct contradiction to their previous one, then you just haven't been watching Republicans for very long (this sort of 180 degree reversal is common for them as a party). This began to get some traction, although nobody stopped to think that maybe the public was getting a little tired of the Bush "I've made my mind up, don't bother me with the facts" policy-making style we've endured for almost eight years now.

But then the McCain team went a teensy bit too far, and started trying to paint Barack Obama as George Bush. Unless they were intentionally trying to make late night comedy writers' jobs easier, this made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Which, incidentally, is why I'm personally hoping this becomes McCain's main theme this fall, "Obama would be a third term for Bush." Seriously -- good luck with that one, guys! Can't wait to see how the election turns out if that's really all you've got....

[Ahem. Sorry about that. Where was I?]

The Republican Party is apparently still trying to figure Obama out, so that they may attack him more effectively. Perhaps this was exactly the result Obama wanted? This may help define what he means by "post-partisan." To sum it up: "The old ways of attacking me won't work, because I am something new and different."

But by doing so, he has risked the wrath of the left. And the media. He (gasp!) "refines" his positions! It's the end of the world as we know it!!

Well, um... maybe not.

Now, I have been guilty of using some strong language myself towards Obama (particularly on the FISA vote), but I never really was an Obamamaniac to begin with. I never saw him as someone who walked on water, healed the sick, and discovered a cure for cancer in his spare time. He's a politician, and (from what I can tell so far) a very good one. Depending on how you define "politician," that's either a compliment, a neutral statement, or a pistols-at-dawn insult.

Which gets us back to defining our terms. Many on the left are gnashing teeth and rending garments over the fact that Obama has "betrayed" them and is not the "progressive" they had all hoped he was.

Well, I hate to say it, but Barack Obama has been saying that all along. He does not see himself as a super-partisan, he sees himself as post-partisan. That's a very different thing, but he has been consistent about this stance. Those who expected him to be the Perfect Progressive must have missed that part of his speeches up until now.

An argument can be made that "post-partisan" is just another term for "centrist," but I don't think Obama sees himself that way. I think he sees "post-partisan" as more "non-ideological." To indulge in a little political projection of my own, I would hope that he means "reality-based politics." Which I define as: listen to what the left and right says about an issue, check the actual facts, make a decision, and then fight for what you believe to be right.

Because, while I will guarantee that I will not agree with every single thing Barack Obama would do as president (and will publicly chastise him for what I perceive to be such lapses in judgment), this is the kind of post-partisanship I could easily live with in the Oval Office.


-- Chris Weigant


7 Comments on “Defining "Post-Partisan"”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    A most excellent post! And, that's all I have to say about that.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote: say that you should post this over at HP...really!

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    I agree with Elizabeth (may I call you Elizabeth?) whole-heartedly...

    Let me post here what I posted on HuffPo here:

    That is why I support Senator Obama.. He is not going to be a DEMOCRAT President..

    He is going to be an AMERICAN President...

    And all the political bigots on BOTH sides of the aisle will learn that their bile-infested and hatred-fostering time has past...


  4. [4] 
    BLaws wrote:


    "That is why I support Senator Obama.. He is not going to be a DEMOCRAT President..
    He is going to be an AMERICAN President…"

    Little bit of my background to share, Chris is aware of it but your comment compells me to share with everyone...

    I live in Cincinnati, a historically Republican city. My father was a strong conservative Republican in the Reagan mold (not this new crap). He used to come home from work fuming about "the damn Democrats did this" or "the damn Democrats did that". He listened to Rush Limbaugh daily. Hell, so did I. So by up bringing I always considered myself a Republican.

    I had never really followed politics before, other than casually paying attention during Presidential races. The closest I got to following politics was watching "The West Wing", which I really enjoyed. But even then I didn't really follow politics.

    Still considering myself a Republican, and having liked John McCain back in 2000, he was my favorite at the time. What really got me paying attention was when my staunch conservative Republican father said he was supporting a Democrat! I couldn't believe it. He told me about the 2004 convention speech so I went and watched it on YouTube and instantly saw why my father liked him. So I started paying attention.

    Still considering myself a Republican I started noticing that the more I watched, the more I was repulsed by the Republican commentators and politicians on TV (well most of them). The constant lies, ad hominem and straw man attacks, and the endless distortions. There was almost no honest policy debates, just constant attacks, smears, and distortions. My personallity is one that can't stand disingenuousness or lies. So the more I watched, the more I was driven from the Republican party.

    I registered Democrat before the Ohio primary to vote for Obama. Now, there are some Democrats that are over the top, as there are some Republicans that are honorable (Michael Smerconish, Ed Rollins, Kevin Madden, etc). But from my view I just saw a GOP party that was no substance just lies and attacks, and policies that where hotbutton issues that sounded good but they had no intention of doing anything about. It was all about simply winning and keeping power. As Rush says... "It's not about working with Democrats, it's about defeating them".

    So, as you can imagine, I really gravitated to Obama's message of working together and not politics of destruction. What gets me is the people getting all worked up over a few of his positions... FISA, gun ban, death penalty, etc. They need to get over this rigid side vs side fight that isn't working. FISA was a compromise. Hell, I agree with civil immunity, cause any lawsuits would only hurt citizens on their bills and would only benefit the lawyers.

    I predict that Obama will sign off on off shore leasing at some point... in a compromise deal that will result in major funding of alternative energy projects. That's why he supported the 2005 Energy bill.

    People need to get over their far one sided politics. Hell... I'm a socially liberal fiscal conservative. I don't support any party anywhere close to 100%. But I guess that's also why I am supporting Obama.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    @Michale may call me anything you want, just don't call me late for dinner.


    Nice story, but I too feel compelled to respond to a couple of things you said.

    I also saw the Obama speech at the 2004 Dem convention as it happened and I still have a very vivid memory of it. I remember saying, after his speech and after my jaw drop subsided, that this guy will be presidential material. I wondered out loud where the Democrats had been hiding him! I also understood, of course, that a great political speech and phenomonal delivery does not a president make. But Barack Obama was impressive, nevertheless.

    One aspect of your story jumped off the page for me - your disdain for disingenuous. You and I are cut from the same cloth on that score - as are most who make this site such a great one! And, it is the disingenousness demonstrated by Senator Obama on Iraq - in particular, the October 2002 resolution authorizing the use of US military force in Iraq - that has prevented me from enthusiastic support for his candidacy. He will redeem himself, in my book, if he asks Senator Biden to be his running mate.

    As for off-shore oil leasing...if Obama supports NEW leases for off-shore drilling, then that will demonstrate to me that he does not understand this issue. Frankly, I don't believe he will support NEW off-shore drilling - I should think that Senator Biden has already set him straight on why supporting new off-shore drilling is not necessary or even wise.

    As for getting over partisan politics...that is just one more reason why I believed Senator Biden was the most qualified and best equipped to be the next POTUS.

  6. [6] 
    BLaws wrote:


    "And, it is the disingenousness demonstrated by Senator Obama on Iraq - in particular, the October 2002 resolution authorizing the use of US military force in Iraq - that has prevented me from enthusiastic support for his candidacy."

    How was he disingenous on that? In what way? I don't follow.

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Hey BLaws!

    Well, let me briefly - seriously - explain what I mean. And, you can be sure I'd love to elaborate!

    Senator Obama has rested his campaign on the foundation of his superior judgement on Iraq. In particular, he has presented himself as the only one who “was against this war from the beginning” while suggesting, if not explicitly stating, that all of his presidential rivals “voted for war”. Certainly, the vast majority of the electorate and most of the media (mainstream and otherwise) and blogosphere have taken this up - hook, line and sinker!

    However, Senator Obama was emphatically NOT the only one among his rivals in the US senate at the time who was against this war from the beginning or the only one predicting the dire consequences of military action against the Saddam regime. And, a vote for the October 2002 resolution authorizing the use of US military force (AUMF) CANNOT be equated with a vote for war. To do so would betray a critical and fundamental misunderstanding of what that resolution was all about and of the context within which that vote took place. This is really what sticks in my craw the most, I must say.

    To be sure, one would be hard pressed to find another senator - at the national or state level - who was more prescient or insightful with regard to the AUMF and all things related to Iraq (among other issues) than Senator Biden, the leader among Democrats on foreign policy, national security and constitutional issues with impeccable and unimpeachable credentials in these realms which were wholly unmatched by any of his presidential rivals - of either party!

    Frankly, I don’t believe that Senator Obama actually believes some of his own rhetoric on this, particularly his characterization of the AUMF. If he did, then I would have very serious doubts about his competency to be the next POTUS - not that competency in that office has been in any great supply of late.

    Senator Obama is fully aware that this general election - and, indeed, primary season - will be won or lost on issues related to foreign policy and national security and he has been wildly successful in portraying himself as having superior judgement on Iraq in order to compensate for his obvious paucity of foreign policy prowess.

    But, as I said, I am willing to forgive him for his disingenuousness on this issue if he demonstrates that he truly does have superior judgement by asking Joe Biden to be his running mate AND by broadening the scope of that office with a new title such as Vice President with Special Portfolio on Iraq!

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