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In Praise of Doing Nothing

Why saying "no" does not equal saying "yes" to the status quo

David Harsanyi
October 20, 2009

No. Normally used to express the negative of an alternative choice or possibility.

No. A super way to convey negation, dissent, denial, or refusal.

No. Republicans—the "Party of No"—should embrace the glory of the word.

It is always curious to hear irascible members of one political party accuse members of the opposing political party of "playing politics" as if it were a bad thing. Can you imagine? Politics. In Washington, no less.

As you know, Democrats claim to be above such petty, divisive and lowbrow behavior, especially on those days they are running both houses of Congress and the White House. What this country really needs, we are reminded incessantly, are more mavericks. Well, Republican mavericks. Folks who say "yes."

How starved is the White House to unearth some imaginary bipartisanship on the health care front?

Consider that for possibly the first time in American history, a vote in a Senate committee was the lead story for news organizations across the country, simply because the ideologically bewildered Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), used her inconsequential vote to move forward a government-run health care bill.

Judging from the coverage, you might have been under the impression that Snowe had nailed her 95 Theses to the door of the Republican National Committee's headquarters. In reality, she sits in a safe seat and habitually votes with Democrats.

"Forget Sarah Palin," remarked The Associated Press. "The female maverick of the Republican Party is Sen. Olympia Snowe." CNN's resident rational, reasonable, moderate Democrat, Paul Begala, called Snowe the "last rational, reasonable, moderate Republican."

Snowe even unleashed her own cringingly absurd self-congratulatory missive, claiming, "When history calls, history calls."

You know what? History always calls. You're in the United States Senate, for goodness' sake.

"The status quo approach has produced one glaring common denominator; that is that we have a problem that is growing worse, not better," Snowe added, in a glaringly obvious false dilemma. However ghastly the status quo might be, the alternative has the potential to be far worse. Saying "no" does not equate to a "yes" vote on the status quo.

In 2006, Snowe was listed by Time magazine as one of America's 10 best senators, in part for her ability to set aside partisanship. Which is funny because this year, Time magazine ran a hyper-adulatory story about the late Ted Kennedy, perhaps the most partisan force the Senate ever has known. Praise of bipartisanship, you see, is doled out selectively.

Now, as unlikely as it is, history also offers Republicans an unexpected opportunity to remake their party, to find an ideological center, to use politics to thwart a movement that is antithetical to every tenet they've been rhetorically peddling since Ronald Reagan.

Of course, Republicans will increasingly be accused of being ideologues. If only.

Is ideology something to be dismissed as a barrier to progress? Isn't ideology a framework of ideas that politicians should be using to inform their decisions?

Mavericks, well, they dismiss ideology because it would bind them to consistent and principled votes. John McCain often displays the muddled and mercurial thinking of a person with no political, intellectual, or economic philosophy guiding him.

There is plenty of room for dissent in political parties. But when it comes to health care reform, Republicans—powerless to stop meatloaf from being served in the Senate mess hall, much less a bill—do have a chance to embrace the ideals they've been pretending to champion for a decade with one straightforward, graceful and honorable word: "no."

They have no moral or civic or political obligation to embrace bipartisanship. History might even be telling them not to.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his Web site at www.DavidHarsanyi.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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