The Memo: Washington’s fake debate on ‘bipartisanship’

Mitch McConnell, Joe Biden and Charles Schumer
Greg Nash/Getty Images

Everyone in Washington wants bipartisanship — and it could be easily achieved, if only their opponents would agree with them.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would like a bipartisan deal on infrastructure — if President Biden and the Democrats would reduce their own proposal to a small fraction of its current size.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sent Biden a letter last month suggesting he and the president could “put our political differences aside” to improve the situation on the southern border. One way to make progress, McCarthy suggested, would be for Biden to restart construction of former President Trump’s border wall.

Of course it’s not only Republicans who profess a desire for bipartisanship even as they create conditions that make it all but impossible.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) would like bipartisanship on infrastructure, too. But at the same time he says that the current Biden proposal — weighing in at more than $2 trillion over eight years — “ain’t enough” on issues such as public housing.

Previously, Schumer had argued that Democrats’ use of reconciliation to pass the COVID-19 relief package pushed by Biden made bipartisanship “more likely.” He made the claim despite everyone in Washington knowing that the purpose of using reconciliation was to obviate the need to get any GOP votes at all.

Republicans also complain about Democrats talking up the importance of bipartisanship while holding over their heads the possibility of doing away with the Senate filibuster — a move that McConnell has said would lead to a “nuclear winter” in the Senate.

The bigger problem, though, may lie with a Washington culture — including the political media — that fetishizes the concept of bipartisanship without ever delving into why this supposed virtue is in such short supply.

Some, particularly on the left of the Democratic Party, are becoming increasingly vocal in arguing that the fetishization of bipartisanship is damaging or an outright con.

“There has been no indication for well over a decade that the Republican Party in Congress has any interest in operating in any bipartisan way. They just want their way,” said Jeff Weaver, who served as campaign manager for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign.

Another Democratic strategist, Mark Longabaugh, complained that when Republicans “are in power they will just roll the process, whether they have Democrats on board or not. But of course, when they are not in power, they are all about trying to gum things up ‘because the public demands bipartisanship.’ ”

It is those kinds of views that are fueling the push among some Democrats to do away with the Senate filibuster — a move that advocates say is the quickest way around what they see as GOP obstructionism.

“Democrats must stop pretending that Republicans are acting in good faith or have any desire to be a governing party,” Rahna Epting, the executive director of progressive group MoveOn, wrote in Newsweek in February. “Put simply: Democrats must abandon the notion of bipartisanship if they actually want to get anything done.”

Not so fast, say Republicans.

Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, drew a parallel with McConnell warning then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) almost a decade ago that he would come to regret getting rid of the filibuster for most judicial nominees.

“That turned out to be true,” Heye said. “I understand why people would be critical of the filibuster but Democrats never really had a problem using it in the past. If they go down this road, as McConnell said to Harry Reid, ‘This will come back to haunt you.’ Politics is not static, especially with a 50-50 Senate. Are you really willing to bet that Republicans will never be in the majority?”

Setting aside the arcana of the Senate rules, however, it seems as if bipartisan agreement in Washington should not be as difficult to reach as it is.

According to opinion polls, there is overwhelming public support for some big moves, even on politically sensitive topics. 

Gun control writ large is divisive but the idea of universal background checks is hugely popular, for example. The same is true on immigration: the big issue is polarizing but a large majority of Americans favor some kind of fix that would allow so-called Dreamers — unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — to remain.

The popularity of the policies has not translated into meaningful legislation, however.

Jordan Tama, a professor at American University who is currently working on a book about bipartisanship, said part of the problem lies with the outsize influence exerted by interest groups and ideologically committed party activists.

“There would be more bipartisanship if politicians were only responding to voters,” he said. “But there are a lot of issues where interest groups have a lot of influence and are tied only to one party.

“The National Rifle Association is very closely tied to the Republican Party, and spends a lot of money on campaign contributions, and will make life difficult for any Republican who is not voting with them. So Republicans are going to toe that line even if most voters, including Republicans, actually think universal background checks are a good idea.” Tama added.

There is no obvious way out of the dead end.

Both parties have become increasingly homogenized over the past few decades. More recently, the splintering of the media into ideological shards has raised up more fervent voices on either side. Those same voices, on right and left, are often fundraising powerhouses.

But there is a more fundamental problem with the calls for bipartisanship, too. Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on very much.

Members of both parties might endorse their own version of the argument voiced by Weaver, the former Sanders aide.

The proposals that come out of the GOP these days, Weaver contended, “are radical, right-wing Republican proposals.”

“Democrats don’t support those,” Weaver added sardonically. “That’s why they’re not radical, far-right Republicans.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Harry Reid Immigration Infrastructure Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell
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