Two weeks ago President Obama returned to the Illinois capitol. Praising the bipartisanship he had found there, he recalled that, despite having different principles, the parties had forged “compromises” that made for “progress.” He held up Illinois politics as superior to the partisan politics that infect Washington D.C. today.
The President may be nostalgic for the political culture that launched his career as a politician. But he does not have to live in the sorry state that was created in large measure by the bipartisanship he celebrates. Illinois is mired in billions of dollars in debt. Its bond rating is the lowest in the nation. It is judged the third worst state to do business. Its strong public sector unions deliver poor services at a high price.
Illinois’ failure to live within its means, and its solicitude for public sector unions, has indeed been bipartisan. Republicans controlled at least one house of the legislature until 2002 and much important legislation has had support from both parties. Illinois has also had both Republican and Democratic governors in the last thirty years, but until the election of Governor Bruce Rauner, no governor of either party seriously tried to put the fiscal house in order. Even its criminality has been bipartisan: both a Republican and Democratic Governor recently went to jail for corruption.
Indeed, the deeply indebted Illinois government is, in a sense, a natural compromise between Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats get big government, and Republicans get low taxes. Politicians in both parties win reelection and slough off the debts to the next generation. And unless a politician has the independent means of Governor Bruce Rauner, there is little opportunity for independent opposition. Bipartisanship can easily turn into a cartel for the benefit of politicians against the voters.
This bipartisanship is also not a good deal for proponents of limited government. It is not surprising that President Obama celebrates the “progress” of his years in government. A government growing in size is difficult to pare down, given the clients and dependencies it creates. At the national level, the President’s nostalgia for bipartisanship recalls the time before conservative movement, when Republicans in Congress did not try to reform fundamentally the welfare state, only quibbled about the rate of its growth.
So we should celebrate partisanship, particularly at the state level. Let Democrats in Connecticut and Republicans in Kansas implement their visions for government. We can then evaluate the consequences. I look forward to the information from such experimentation and even more to the relative political accountability it brings.