Washington’s Definition of Bipartisanship Works in Theory, Not Practice

Last month, President Obama announced the nomination of Republican Lanhee Chen to the Social Security Advisory Board, a move some found peculiar after Chen called Obama’s retirement policies laughable during the 2012 campaign and just three weeks ago attacked Obamacare in a Bloomberg column.

But, it’s not that surprising: the nomination meets a requirement to fill a vacant Republican seat on the bipartisan board, and Chen was picked by fellow Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a White House aide told the Washington Post. Moreover, Obama has not hesitated to reach across the political aisle before, as when he selected Republican Jeffrey Immelt to head the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Even if the nomination is not a total surprise, it is intriguing in that it focuses the social security debate on the relationship between Obama and one of his leading critics.

Smart and Headstrong

Chen has earned a reputation for having a good head on his shoulders, as well as being a bit headstrong. When his acquaintances are asked to describe him, inevitably the first thing they mention is his intelligence. A son of Taiwanese immigrants and fluent in English, Taiwanese Hokkien and Mandarin, Chen holds four degrees from Harvard, including doctorates in law and political science.

The 33-year-old wrote his dissertation on how judicial elections affect legislation. His dissertation adviser Sidney Verba, who stands in succession to Woodrow Wilson as a former president of the American Political Science Association, remembers Chen as one of his best students in his 35 years of teaching. By all accounts, Chen is a prodigy.

Since earning his first degree in 1999, Chen has continued to stay academically engaged, serving as a research fellow at Berkeley’s Institute of Government Studies from 2010-2011 and currently at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Chen has been active at the Heritage Foundation since 2003, and he writes regularly for Bloomberg.

A Rising Star

Like his mentor Verba, Chen takes an engaged approach to political science, not merely an academic one. In 2004, he served the George W. Bush administration as a senior policy and political aide at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He became Mitt Romney’s domestic policy director in 2007, lending his expertise in health care policy. 

Will the close working proximity between declared opponents merely serve to sharpen points of disagreement and bitterness from frustrated efforts at communication, underscoring how bipartisanship in Washington today seems to exist more in theory than in practice?

Following the 2008 campaign, he served for eight months as an associate attorney at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a prestigious global law firm. He left this position in June 2009 to advise Steve Poizner’s 2010 California gubernatorial campaign.

In spring 2011, the Romney campaign tapped Chen to head Romney’s Free and Strong America PAC as its policy director. Chen came to exert such an influence on Romney, observers were soon calling him the brains behind the campaign’s policy positions, crediting him as the unacknowledged author of Romney’s 59-point position paper on the economy.

Romney also relied on Chen’s communication skills and his knack for witty remarks to not only develop the campaign’s message, but deliver it through articles, TV interviews and social media posts. Chen gained a reputation as one of Romney’s top spokesmen, as well as his leading adviser, leading some to portray him as an orchestra leader conducting Romney’s campaign. Some critics claim Chen ultimately hurt Romney’s campaign by extending his reach beyond his domestic policy competency into foreign affairs and shaping the candidate’s response to Benghazi.

From Campaign Rivalry to Bipartisan Cooperation?

Since the inauguration of Obama’s second term, Chen has resumed his role as a vocal media critic of the administration’s policies, actively writing for Bloomberg in opposition to Obamacare. Chen argues the antidote to government overspending on health care is employer-sponsored, tax-advantaged health savings accounts, such as those offered by State Farm and other HSA providers. Chen has also positioned himself as a commentator, shaping Republican policy on issues such as immigration reform, on both the California state level and on a national level.

During the 2012 campaign, Chen contended Obama’s retirement policy had set both social security and Medicare on a path to insolvency. He cited the social security and Medicare Trustees’ annual reports to argue seniors will see social security benefits cut of 25 percent in 2033 if things stay on their current track.

So what effect will bringing one of Obama’s most vocal domestic policy critics onto the Social Security Advisory Board have on the bipartisan committee? Will it create an opportunity for representatives of opposing positions to step away from the heated arena of media debate and discuss their differences in a subdued forum more akin to the academic environment Chen hails from — better conducive to civil disagreement, dialogue and cooperation? Or will the close working proximity between declared opponents merely serve to sharpen points of disagreement and bitterness from frustrated efforts at communication, underscoring how bipartisanship in Washington today seems to exist more in theory than in practice?

What reforms are needed to get politicians to work together?

Creative Commons image by DonkeyHotey