Washington this week has been obsessed with the hunt for the elusive thing known as “bipartisanship.” Is there a bipartisan deal to be had on China? On Infrastructure? When Senate Republicans filibustered the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol—physical security surely being a bipartisan concern if there ever was one—our own Playbook moaned that “Dreams of a bipartisan, independent investigation into the Capitol insurrection are probably dashed for good.”
What dreams were those? Joe Biden ran for president as the “apostle of bipartisanship,” as the New York Times put it, and ever since has been romancing Republicans at the White House hoping to convert them. But the two parties seem unable or unwilling to agree on anything substantive. The $1.9 trillion pandemic measure that Congress passed, and Biden signed, collected not a single Republican vote in either chamber. Today, Republicans and Democrats remain at partisan loggerheads over the “infrastructure” bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has stretched his 5-foot, 9-inch frame as far as it can extend to block H.R. 1, the bill that would expand voting rights.
Speaking for the bipartisans who don’t seem to exist, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) lamented the current lack of congressional bipartisanship in a December farewell speech to the Senate and gloried in the times he had crossed the aisle to help Democrats rescue a bill. “I think the people elected me to go to work with the president who was elected at the time,” Alexander said.
Why all the anguish over a lost ideal of cooperation? While it’s not necessarily a bad thing when the two parties harmonize, it’s not automatically a good thing, either. Often, terrible, awful things can also happen when Republicans and Democrats agree to agree. Other times, virulently partisan legislative solutions are the best policy. And if you look closely enough at the rosy, hazy past, you’ll find plenty of times when what looks like the pure ideal of bipartisanship turns out to be pure political horse-trading, as one party concedes a vote that’s not important to them to persuade the opposing party to forfeit a position they don’t particularly care about.
Paging through American history textbooks, it’s easy to find examples of bipartisanship we regret. The internment of citizens of Japanese descent? Bipartisan. The Patriot Act and the Iraq War? Bipartisan. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? The Defense of Marriage Act? The ultracomplicated tax code? President Bill Clinton’s crime bill? All bipartisan to the max. If only there had been a little less cooperation between the parties back then, and a little more critical examination of what they were actually voting on. Proponents of Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, and other radical measures will tell you that these measures never would have passed had legislators worshiped the grail of bipartisanship.
You should reach for your wallet every time a politician makes a plea for bipartisanism in the name of seeking “common ground” or “rising above politics” or to “reject cynicism.” There’s nothing more political than asserting that your position is above politics and that your foes’ positions are drenched in it. As you do, keep a watch on self-proclaimed “centrists” who claim, as keepers of compromise, to be the guiding spirit of bipartisanship. Centrism is a position no less distinct than liberalism or conservatism. Also beware of the so-called bipartisan presidential commissions that various White Houses have convened. As the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman observed in 2014, they’re usually a strategy designed not to bring the warring sides together, but to give a shroud of credibility to kicking the can down the road a little further. “The documents are a glorious feast for editorial writers but a bowl of day-old dog food to the people who make policy,” Chapman concluded.
To anyone who has watched Washington change over the years, it’s clear the bipartisan credo represents a nostalgia for a time—which started fading in the late 1960s—when what passed for bipartisanship was extreme partisanship by another name. Back then, the two parties still embraced more ideological diversity within their ranks: There were liberal Republicans like John Lindsay, whom political taxonomists would now peg for a Democrat (he eventually became one) and conservative Democrats like Strom Thurmond, who acted like a Republican (he eventually became one, too). The jockeying for votes in those days created an illusion of Republicans and Democrats working together, when what was often happening was the natural liberals from both parties ganging up on the natural conservatives on the Hill.
But by the 1970s, politicians were aggressively sorting themselves into the party closest to their position, ending easy accommodation with the “other side.” It’s not just from a failure of character that 1960s-style bipartisanship doesn’t exist today: It can’t exist. All the liberals have deposited themselves into the Democratic Party, and all conservatives are Republicans. The species that made those “bipartisan” deals is as extinct as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Call it a cryptozoological search.
None of this analysis is to suggest that the two parties should never work with one another to pass laws. But as news consumers and voters, we need to remember that the halo that reporters and pundits, and politicians themselves, hoist over “bipartisanship” is a shuck. And when it isn’t a shuck, it’s a rhetorical cudgel that politicians use to brand themselves as noble and reasonable while slamming their opponents as petty and vindictive.
Despite their moans of protests about the end of bipartisanship, members of Congress understand what’s going on: Old-school accommodation is mostly dead, and Congress has evolved into a defacto parliamentary system in which the majority takes all. The best way to pass legislation is to win more seats. If you believe in majority rule, forget about making converts: Assemble a majority and start ruling with it.
The most “bipartisan” candidate for president in 2020 was Michael Bloomberg and he spent $1 billion to win 31 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Send billions in Bitcoin to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts are painfully bipartisan, my Twitter account is a centrist, and my RSS feed thinks Mao was soft.