Partisanship, even in this highly partisan age, should have its limits. This proposition is one that all Americans would endorse. There are certain fundamental values that we all share, like protecting our security and promoting certain basic principles. Compromising these values to gain a momentary partisan advantage is a breach of good citizenship. And the threshold of the limits should be even stricter for those who hold an office designated or understood to be non-partisan, like a judge or chairman of the Federal Reserve. Partisan behavior should never be accepted, even if the matter involved is small.
The obvious “problem” with this proposition is where and how it applies. In the extreme case—such as an attack on the homeland—everyone would know. But in matters short of this, it can be difficult to say whether an action is simply partisan. To make things worse, even the proposition itself (“Partisanship must have its limits”) is subject to partisan manipulation.
Consider events over the past couple of weeks. Mitt Romney issued a hard-hitting statement on the night of the assault on the embassy in Cairo: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” Was this fair criticism or beyond the limit? Many harshly criticized Romney for exploiting a delicate foreign policy situation for his partisan advantage, a charge that gained more traction (for its truth, or for its own partisan utility?) in the aftermath of the killings of four Americans in Libya in the next hours.
Now turn the spotlight on President Obama and his administration for the “message” they delivered on Libya. Following the massacre, the administration fpr days downplayed—virtually denied—the possibility that the attack was a result of pre-arranged terrorism. Adopting this position seemed to be a way of protecting the President’s political standing. An admission of terrorism could have called into question the efficacy of Obama’s whole foreign policy of winning over Muslims by his outreach and rhetoric; or it could have raised questions of whether the administration had adequately provided for the Americans’ security. In any case, many criticized the Administration for deploying its spokespersons to put out a line to promote the President’s political interests in a matter of national security. This criticism gained traction as the Administration’s position, which always seemed to lack credibility, had to be withdrawn.
Readers will wish to consider these two incidents and judge whether partisanship was carried too far, or whether the real partisanship was in the claim that it was carried too far. I want to bring up a third case, in the other category mentioned, which applies to the persons charged to act without regard to partisan consideration. The particular instance I have in mind concerns the recent move by the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to launch “QE3,” the technical name for the printing of massive new amounts of money. Before coming to the main point about partisanship, I will add an aside about this policy. Like most in political science, I recognize the policy significance of such moves without exactly understanding the economic reasoning involved. It makes me feel slightly better that many economists don’t seem to understand the economics of such matters, either. They do seem, however, to know that the models on which these decisions are based—like our own models on election outcomes–have limited reliability. This fact is enough to make one wonder whether a prudent actor, except in some kind of emergency, should initiate major policies on such grounds. Doesn’t a reasonable person know enough to know when he does not know enough? Given his own record, Mr. Bernanke, who had no inkling before of the financial crash of September 08, should above everyone else be reasonable. But he is not. His current policies seem to be the height of imprudence. The last bubble resulted in part from people (and government agencies) engaging in massive and reckless speculation. While some of the government policies since then have been designed, wisely or not, to control such speculation in the private sphere, Bernanke’s own monetary policy represents one of the largest and most reckless speculative gambits ever undertaken. It is “socialized” speculation. What moral sense is there in a government engaging in uncontrolled speculation, while seeking to teach private individuals to avoid doing the same thing? The government is doing for the stock market today exactly what it helped to do for the housing market in the decade before September 2008. It is encouraging overinvestment in equities, on the hope that this speculation will re-start the economy.
But all this is background to the main point of this post. As I said, I know little about economics. But one thing is certain, whatever one thinks of the ultimate merits of Mr. Bernanke’s economic policies, QE3 is calculated to boost (temporarily) the stock market. It is therefore a policy with huge political implications: it aids the reelection chances of President Obama. Mr. Bernanke claims that his actions were taken without regard to partisan motives, which makes him either a fool or a deceiver (and for all our sakes, we should prefer the latter). If he wanted to pursue this policy, he should have done so two months ago or two months from now. A decision of this magnitude taken in the last two months of an election campaign is by definition political; it affects, maybe dramatically, the political climate. As someone entrusted with an important position of power, Mr. Bernanke’s behavior transgresses the proposition that partisanship, even in this highly partisan age, should have limits.