Bipartisanship has become a partisan weapon
For much of American history, bipartisanship frequently facilitated the passage of legislation in the United States Congress. The G.I. Bill, the Federal Highway Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Welfare Reform, and the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Law are just a few of the many important bills supported by Republicans and Democrats.
As the two political parties have become more ideologically homogeneous and locked in mortal combat with each other, bipartisanship has all but disappeared.
But a large majority of voters continue to tell pollsters they want politicians to cooperate with members of the other party to get things done. That said, it’s worth noting that bipartisanship remains a vague concept. What constitutes good faith negotiating? Did the support of three Republican senators make President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act bipartisan?
These ambiguities have allowed Republicans and Democrats, albeit in different ways, to weaponize bipartisanship. Here’s how:
Republicans have managed to have it both ways. In 2010, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) played to the Republican base, declaring that his “main job” was to prevent Obama’s re-election. To accomplish this goal, he said, all Congressional Republicans must oppose the president’s legislative agenda so that Democrats could not “say it was bipartisan.” In 2013, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) killed comprehensive immigration reform, passed by the Senate, and supported by a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives, by invoking the “Hastert Rule,” which stipulates that no bill will be brought to the floor for a vote if it does not have support from a majority of Republicans. In May 2021, with the Senate controlled by Democrats, McConnell cited “total unity from Susan Collins [R-Maine] to Ted Cruz [R-Texas]” — “One hundred percent of my focus,” he announced, is on organizing Republican “opposition to what the new Biden administration is trying to do to this country.”
After a visit to the White House a few months earlier, however, 10 Republican senators (including Sen. Collins) indicated they wanted to “work in good faith” with the administration on a COVID-19 relief package. They claimed that their proposal — one quarter of the sum proposed by the president — would be approved “quickly by Congress with bipartisan support.” Moving ahead without GOP votes, warned Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), would “poison the well.” Republicans subsequently accused Biden of talking the talk, but not walking the walk of bipartisanship on infrastructure as well as COVID relief.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has ridden bipartisanship to a position of preeminent power in a Senate comprised of 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats. Representing West Virginia, one of the nation’s reddest states, Manchin boasts on his website that he has voted with a majority of Senate Republicans 54 percent and with President Trump 74 percent of the time. Opposed to ending the filibuster because he believes it encourages bipartisanship, Manchin insists that his fellow Democrats “must avoid the temptation to abandon Republican colleagues on important issues.”
In his six terms as Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden established a reputation for collaborating with his Republican colleagues. But as vice president, Biden watched as Republicans held out the possibility of support for the Obama administration’s economic recovery and health care proposals, exacted concessions, and then found reasons to sing along with Mitch. And so, as president, Biden has made good on his campaign pledge to bring Republicans to the White House and have “good faith negotiations with them,” but tried to redefine bipartisanship as support from Republican voters rather than GOP legislators.
Most important, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Biden is using his powers to set negotiating parameters for major policy initiatives and prevent Republican saboteurs disguised as bipartisans from causing death by a thousand cuts.
Biden may have learned as well that once a bill passes, voters do not remember — or do not care — whether it received bipartisan support. The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package is a case in point. Passed without any Republican votes, the legislation is supported by 70 percent of Americans (including 41 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents); 57 percent of Americans believe Biden made “a good faith effort” at working with Congressional Republicans.
Bipartisanship remains an admirable aspirational goal. But it does not necessarily make legislation better — or legitimize bills. And there’s no good reason to blame a party, Democrat or Republican, for going it alone when its got the votes.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”