The hand-wringing taking place in Washington over the twin myths of bi-partisanship and non-partisanship should be familiar to political observers in Wisconsin. When it comes to dumb political analysis, we often seem to be ahead of the curve.
Whether it's here or there, when intrepid reporters and pundits try to document how partisanship prevents politicians from putting aside their many differences and "doing the people's work," they end up obscuring the ways that Democrats and Republicans are nearly identical.
Nationally, the media obsession with partisanship - bi-, non-, and "post" - has made it difficult to understand what is really going on with the various bailouts and the federal economic stimulus. The story has too often been about how many congressional Republicans would vote for President Obama's stimulus package, and whether Obama is sincere in his call for "post-partisanship."
Republicans have taken advantage of this opening to whine that Obama is not bi-partisan enough. And many liberal pundits and rank-and-file Democrats grouse that Obama is giving up more than he has to in a misguided quest of non-partisanship for non-partisanship's sake.
Here in Wisconsin, partisans everywhere are preparing to be blamed every day the state Legislature does not settle the biennial budget Gov. Jim Doyle just introduced.
The story goes like this: The Democratic and Republican parties are each controlled by the extremists in their ranks. Left-wing activists and interest groups give legislative Democrats their marching orders while the right-wing voting base and funding sources control the state's Republicans.
Under this theory, one party's leaders cannot reach amicable agreements with the other party's leaders because the positions they start from are so far apart. The moderates in each party would be able to work together but the partisan extremists who are in control will not let them.
It's bunk. More importantly, it obscures the nearly opposite truth: There is too much agreement between Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature, not too much disagreement.
First of all, there are almost no moderates remaining in the Wisconsin Republican Party. The Bill Krauses and DuWayne Johnsrud's have been branded RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and sent home.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Democrats are nothing but moderates. There is no left wing left in the party accused of being led by leftists.
Take the current "debate" over taxes. For the past several budget cycles, Republicans have pushed for the draconian tax-cutting Taxpayers Bill of Rights while Democrats support the state's current unfair, corporate-friendly tax structure. The status quo constructed by longtime Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and the right-wing think tanks that advised him is thereby assured.
During the 2007 budget deliberations, the state Assembly was controlled by Republicans, and the Senate and governor's office were in the hands of Democrats. As months went by with the budget conference committee barely even meeting, the Capitol press corps wrote incessantly about "partisan gridlock." The sides were so far apart they could no longer even speak to each other.
The truth is that the two sides weren't meeting because one side didn't want to. The GOP's budget strategy was to not pass a budget. Because they were outnumbered and Gov. Doyle had veto authority, GOP leaders decided to hold out so long that Democrats would cede to some of their demands just to stem the flow of reporters' questions about Madison's poisonous partisanship.
Assembly Republicans were able to get away with this because journalists and editors are so worried about appearing partisan themselves. They were afraid to tell the truth -- that the budget was past due because one party wanted it to be.
The question now is whether a similar strategy will work even when the Republicans do not even have the majority in the Assembly. Based on what's happened nationally with the stimulus debate, probably.
Dustin Beilke is a union organizer and freelance writer who lives in Madison.