A political donor recently told me that “The only solution to our political problems is bipartisanship.” It sounds good: the quaint notion of country above party, the good old days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil drank beers and resolved their differences (effectively chronicled in Chris Matthews’s book “Tip & The Gipper”). But lately, I’ve wondered whether bipartisanship as a political movement is as relevant today as, say, the late 19th century mugwumps.
I wonder because according to recent data, Americans have a raging inner conflict about the efficacy, even the definition, of political cooperation. There’s a chasm between what we say and how we vote.
It’s true that poll after poll reveals strong and deep support for bipartisanship. According to a survey by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service in October, “66% of Americans prefer a politician who is willing to work together to gets things done, even if it means compromising on their values.”
In a CNN poll last spring, 87 percent stated that attempts at bipartisanship are a good thing, including 92 percent of Democrats, 90 percent of independents and 77 percent of Republicans. A Navigator Research Poll last November revealed that 68 percent of independents and 32 percent of Republicans preferred that congressional Republicans work with President Biden and Democrats to pass infrastructure legislation.
And yet, the upcoming midterm elections – the only poll that really matters – will probably leave fewer than 10 House seats where bipartisanship is clearly valued rather than vilified.
What’s going on? How can so many Americans who claim to support bipartisanship reject it when they vote?
The first problem is that the very notion of bipartisanship is laden with subjectivity. For many of us, bipartisanship means that the other side concedes to our positions. For Democrats, bipartisanship is a virtue when Republicans cooperate with us but heresy when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) does the same with Republicans. Similarly, while many Republicans claim to support bipartisanship, when 13 in their party voted for Biden’s infrastructure bill, they were branded as traitors. Bipartisanship, it turns out, is in the eyes of the beholders.
I thought the conflict was demonstrated in an odd finale, of sorts, to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) funeral service at the North Phoenix Baptist Church on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. After a parade of speakers exalted him for his willingness to compromise, the service ended with a blaring recording of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” Not exactly an anthem to cooperation and concession.
Then there are the structural barriers that literally guard against bipartisan compromise. Bipartisanship is slain not with a sword, but with a Sharpie. When congressional districts are drawn redder and bluer to advantage a political party, the moderate middle simply pales. Let’s face it, few House incumbents currently fear losing to a candidate of the opposite party in a general election but are wary of a primary from someone further to the right or left within their own party.
The gravity of the intensified base pulls House incumbents to the far fringes. “But why don’t they resist?” you ask. “Why don’t they stand up for their principles?” Have you not read the long and still growing listing of political obituaries of those who tried and lost?
The incumbents who saw the handwriting in the polls and announced their premature retirements? This cycle alone includes moderates such as Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), who said: “While my desire to build a fuller family life is at the heart of my decision, it is also true that the current state of our politics, especially many of the toxic dynamics inside our own party, is a significant factor in my decision.”
I witnessed first-hand the complete obliteration of moderate districts in America. When I was elected to Congress in 2000, there were about 125-150 swing districts, where constituents generally supported political cooperation. Then, when I became chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in 2011, the battlefield of competitive districts had shrunk to about 75-100. By 2020, the number of pure purple districts was about 16. (I define those districts as the nine House districts that voted for Biden and a Republican congressional candidate; and seven that voted for President Trump and a Democratic candidate. I could arguably add another 10 — but it’s still a far cry from 150.) The center has not held; the encroachment of the bases has consumed compromise.
Then there’s the other big problem: you. The American people have collapsed into two tribes acting on primitive impulses. So ideologically rigid have we become, so consumed with self-validation on social media, that we are self-sorting into blue and red neighborhoods. Once, fences shielded us from one another, Now, Facebook posts do the same thing.
To be fair, there are some members of Congress who gather to find common ground, particularly the Problem Solvers Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). Any meeting place where Democrats and Republicans don’t dig trenches is refreshing on Capitol Hill. But the trenches are growing deeper and wider and are nearly impossible to bridge.
In theory, at least, my friend had the right idea. Bipartisanship can solve many national challenges. He just didn’t go deep enough in understanding what it will take to get there. The real solution to our political problems is reforming how we draw congressional districts — creating places where candidates can run on bipartisanship, instead of running away.
Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Brooks Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.