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Bickering about US bipartisanship

Barack ObamaBy Camille Elhassani

In his US presidential victory speech on November 4, 2008, Barack Obama said, "Let's resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long".

It's a familiar message in US politics. When George W Bush was running for president in 2000, he told Americans, "I'm a uniter, not a divider". But politicians who vow to change Washington are often changed by Washington. Partisanship is entrenched in the system.

However, senate historian Don Ritchie says while the political party divisions have evolved over many decades, members of Congress have always come to Washington with very different visions of what they want to do.

"Those who love legislation and those who love sausage should never see how either are made. It's not a nice, pretty, efficient, clean, reasonable process. It's a process of constant bargaining, negotiating, one-upsmanship, tactics, cutting the deal, finding out what do you need to get enough votes to achieve or block it," he said.

Major legislation passed during Obama's tenure in office, like health care reform, the economic stimulus, and Wall Street reform, squeaked by with barely enough Republican support to become law. Now with six weeks until the midterm elections, Republicans and Democrats are squaring off against each other and trying to blame the other side for the country's problems.  

'Partisan rancour'

Watching some of the political ads that are running ahead of the election, it's hard to see how the politicians will shake hands and be cordial once the vote is over. An ad for Ben Quayle for Congress from the state of Arizona starts, "Barack Obama is the worst president in history". The Democratic National Committee has a web ad out that mocks Republican leader John Boehner as supporting "backroom deals, special interest favours, and partisan rancour".

Dan Glickman, a former member of Congress and former secretary of agriculture under Bill Clinton, the former US president, says it's more important now than ever for politicians to get along because of the seriousness of the problems facing the nation.

"Compromise is a good word, a positive thing, a positive value. In recent years, my fear is compromise, bipartisanship is seen as a view of weakness, selling out, of not being able to stand up to principles. In fact, the American political system is built on the bedrock of compromise," he said.

Glickman is now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. Their goal is to try to develop bipartisan solutions to America's problems. 

Compromises needed

Whether Democrats have a slimmer majority or become the minority party after the election, the new makeup of Congress will change the nature of the compromises that need to be made for any major legislation to pass.

"In this election, the voters will deal another set of cards. The majority and minority leaders will count their cards," Ritchie said. He has seen the Congress turn over 17 times since he joined the Senate Historical Office. "They’re going to recalculate how to play the game according to what they have."

The last time Republicans wrestled control of Congress from the Democrats was 1994. But in the ensuing years, the Democratic president Clinton and Republicans in Congress found a way to bridge the partisan gap. That era was marked by significant pieces of bipartisan legislation and prosperity for many Americans.

Glickman is hoping that however the election turns out, the next Congress will find a way to work together.

"It requires a great deal of leadership in terms of the executive branch, Congress and the political world generally. The only way to get that done is to work together. If America wants to remain a strong country, it's got to learn how to solve these problems in the context of our political system."

Camille Elhassani is Al Jazeera English's Senior White House Producer.

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