Bipartisanship is a Myth
“THIS is not a time for partisanship,” declared Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, when he accepted President Obama’s invitation to serve as commerce secretary. By last week, Mr. Gregg had changed his mind, citing “irreconcilable conflicts.” For historians, this outcome was predictable: Bipartisan dreams have been crashing into political reality from the earliest days of the Republic.
Only a few months after his first election, George Washington dropped by the Senate to solicit advice about a treaty — but all he got was a loud and agitated debate between the senators. Already they were breaking into factions. Washington, who believed that partisan strife would be “fatal” to the new nation, marched out with what one observer called “a discontented air of sullen dignity.”
Now it’s President Obama’s turn. He seems eager to put aside small political differences and to restore a culture of cooperation in Washington. But it’s going to be a long, hard effort because, well, that golden bipartisan era never existed.
The popular myth of getting past politics, in its modern form, dates back to the 1880s, when reformers known as Mugwumps challenged the corrupt bosses, powerful parties and political machines. The rough-and-tumble party politicians sneered at these well-educated, upper-crust activists: “namby-pamby, good-goody gentlemen who sip cold tea” and “forget that parties are not built by deportment or ladies’ magazines or gush.” And while the Mugwumps eventually achieved a lot of their reforms, their larger aspiration — nonpartisan politics — always slipped out of reach.
Yet modern Mugwumps keep searching for a nonpartisan golden age to emulate. They point, for example, to the early years of the cold war when foreign policy consensus repudiated isolationism and engaged the world. That elite consensus never reached as far as Congress, where the House Un-American Activities Committee was hunting Joe McCarthy’s slippery list of Reds and traitors.
Harry Truman tried, for a time, to float above the brawl but, during his election campaign, he too found his partisan voice to the whoops of “Give ’em hell, Harry.” He got plenty of partisan hell right back the next year when he proposed his Fair Deal program of full employment, education aid, pro-labor legislation, civil rights and national health insurance.
On the very first day of health care hearings, Senator James E. Murray, Democrat of Montana, called on all sides to abjure the words “communistic” and “socialistic” out of respect for the president. Robert Taft, a Republican, interrupted: “I think this bill is the most socialistic measure ever proposed seriously to the Congress.” Murray eventually shouted, “If you don’t shut up, I’ll get these officers in here to have you thrown out.” Taft walked out, and national health insurance died in committee.
Great presidents do manage to push past partisanship — not by reaching out to the other party, but by overwhelming it with a new vision. Franklin Roosevelt did not offer a hand to the defeated Hooverites. Nor did the Republicans rally round the president for long during the Great Depression. In the House, the opposition voted almost unanimously to kill Social Security in 1935. Roosevelt’s success lay not in cooperation, but in the force of the collective, social-gospel vision he articulated from the start.
Ronald Reagan’s fierce attachment to three verities — markets are good, government is bad, communism is evil — also meant little reaching out to the other side. His every move reverberated with the cold war philosophy he described so simply: “We win and they lose.”
Roosevelt and Reagan reveal the dirty rotten secret of bipartisanship. It happens only when one side is cowed, beaten or frightened. More competitive elections mean more ardent debates.
And so it should be. Our government is designed that way. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison offered his bold solution to the problem of clashing interests: more clashing interests. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he declared.
In that way, our partisan debates are no shame. The clash and bluster may not sound pretty, but they are how we choose between great principles.
President Obama looked generous in reaching out to Senator Gregg. But in the end, Mr. Gregg has it right: kind words and good intentions cannot build a bridge between competing political philosophies. History, not to mention the Republican rejection of his stimulus package, offers Mr. Obama a clear guide: Pay less attention to the other party and spend more time — much more — persuading America to embrace what you believe.