The unbearable nostalgia for bipartisanship

By Jack Shafer
December 21, 2012

Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) went out in a blaze of mush last week in her farewell speech from the Senate floor. Snowe, the last of Washington’s militant centrists, lamented the demise of bipartisanship in the Senate and the rise of divisiveness in the chamber. Although she didn’t blame anybody in particular for the erosion of comity — after all, naming names is uncivil — it wasn’t really necessary. Everybody knew she was talking about other, more doctrinaire Republicans.

Snowe sought to indemnify herself by saying she wasn’t looking back on “some kind of golden age of bipartisanship” and wasn’t “advocating bipartisanship as some kind of an end unto itself.” Then — like the Janus-faced centrist she is — Snowe looked back lovingly on the golden age of bipartisanship and compromise that passed Medicare and the Civil Rights Act and shook her pre-drenched hankie for the lost “art of legislating.”

In her misery, Snowe has ample company. Political scholars Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have written a whole book (excerpted here) documenting the “dysfunction” Republicans have visited upon Congress with their non-compromising, extremist, anti-bipartisanship, gridlocking ways. Acknowledging that the Democratic Party has abandoned the center, too, Mann and Ornstein offer that at least since Bill Clinton was in office, the party has “hewed to the center-left” on important issues.

“While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25,” Mann and Ornstein write, “the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.”

What a limiting notion for a pair of political scholars to hold — that the political spectrum is linear and extends only 50 yards in either direction from mid-field, not counting the end zones. Cannot politics be mapped onto a sphere? Flung onto a Möbius strip?

Mann and Ornstein aren’t imagining an increase in polarization in the House and Senate. It’s real, and measurable. As the chartists at Viewvote and Morgan Stanley indicate, the two parties are diverging, and Grist claims that the polarization is asymmetrically Republican, meaning that the Republicans are gravitating to their pole more aggressively than are Democrats. This chasm and Republicans’ intransigence has given our leading liberal commentators heat stroke. Convinced in 2009 that Republicans were determined to destroy the political structure before agreeing on realistic alternatives, Joe Klein called the GOP a “Party of Nihilists,” an insult that Jonathan Chait, writing in the New Republic, recirculated a few months later. In 2010, it was The New York Times‘s Lawrence Downes decrying “Republican nihilism” and in 2011 it was Washington Post columnist Matt Miller’s turn.

The nostalgia for inter-party cooperation, congressional compromise, and bipartisanship bill-passing tends to gloss over a few decades of political history. As Mann and Ornstein note, the two parties have been realigning since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with conservatives Democrats migrating to the Republican Party and liberal-to-moderate Republicans making a similar swap. Any bipartisan motivation of the mid-century was as much a product of intraparty division as it was any kumbaya spirit; get rid of one, and you eliminate the need for the other.

The process has accelerated in recent years, as the Tea Party started defeating concession-weasel moderate Republican office-holders. Liberal Democrats never cared for their own deviationists — the centrist-conservative members of the Blue Dog Coalition — but credit Republicans with dramatically reducing the Blue Dog head count in Congress from 54 (in the 111th) to about 14 (in the 113th) with aggressive redistricting that favored Republicans or pitted Democratic incumbents against one another.

Politicians aren’t the only ones who swoon at the memory of the golden age of bipartisanship. Many of the latter-day David Broders in the press corps faint at the scent of a bipartisan. Bipartisanship, with its emphasis on stoking the engine of legislation, allows journalists to write tick-tocks of Advice and Consent-type deals in which legislators meeting over drinks to horse-trade, “hash things out,” and do the right thing for America. Reading her farewell speech, you can’t help but notice Snowe’s devotion to process, her sense that unless Congress is busily producing legislation it isn’t doing its job — whereas some of us despair at the bipartisan do-somethingism-before-debate-anythingism of the Iraq war resolution, the PATRIOT Act, the endless wars, the auto bail-out, et al. Sometimes I think centrists like Snowe must get paid by the volume, not the quality, of legislation they pass.

Of course not all compromises stink, but it’s hard to call a legislator like Snowe, who has a 48.59 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, much of a compromiser. (Points of reference: Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) scores a 98.77 percent lifetime ranking while Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) has a 5.42 percent.) If, as her ACU score indicates, Snowe’s a middle-of-the-roader, then voting with liberals sometimes and conservatives at others doesn’t make her a compromiser, it makes her a rigid centrist. Centrism, after all, is as much an ideology as liberalism or conservatism.

Snowe now plans to “work from the outside, to help build support for those in this institution who will be working to re-establish the Senate’s roots as a place of refuge from the passions of politics, as a forum where the political fires are tempered, not stoked — as our Founding Fathers intended.” The Senate as a refuge from the passions of politics? Now when was that? Her nostalgia for the days when the two major parties were ideologically ambiguous, with lax if any party discipline, is entirely self-serving. Like anybody who has spent 34 years at one job (her combined House and Senate tenures), Snowe resents change. As Ronald Brownstein and others have argued, the House and Senate have long been evolving into parliamentary-style institutions, jettisoning “mavericks” who prefer an ad hoc approach to politics and promoting those who do their party’s bidding. In Brownstein’s view, the “age of bargaining” that extended from the Truman administration through the early Johnson administration, and was typified by negotiation with the other side, has been displaced by “the age of hyperpartisanship.”

This displacement renders Snowe small and powerless, and deprives her and her fellow political straddlers of the leverage they once held as deal-makers and consensus-builders. Bipartisanship, as the hyper Rahm Emanuel is alleged to have said, is just a way to get what you want.

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If we’re going to have a parliamentary system, can we please have something like Prime Minister’s Questions, too? Send questions to my email address, Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and see my Twitter feed for answers. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer column.

PHOTO: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) speaks to reporters during a news conference which she held to explain why she would not seek re-election in the Senate in Portland, Maine March 2, 2012 REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

4 comments

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no wonder Obama lost every cent on him at his last poker game at the Illinois Senate upon being elected to the U.S. Senate. He’s pathological, he does it every time.

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

Voters don’t elect politicians to sell them out in order to make for convivial dinner parties in Georgetown. And when Democrats talk about ‘getting things done’ these days, they always mean doing what they want. Clinton was able to ‘get things done’ with Republicans because he couldn’t get a deal from within his own party, so he had to give Republicans a bone. Bush was able to ‘get things done’ because the Blue Dogs had constituents who were far more conservative than coastal/college town leftists. In both cases, the deals that got done simply reflected the electorate – there’s that messy democracy thing.

Posted by MarkBee | Report as abusive

The Tea Party is like a bunch of terrorists with bombs strapped to their chests, a trigger in their hand and standing in a crowd, threatening to blow everyone up unless they get their way.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

Say no more than “Harry Reid” Mr. Bipartisan Dem-o-gougue
Quoth Harry
1) No budget passed by Senate in 3 years
2) Scuttled any Congressional action on the Fiscal
Cliff, In advance.
Now there’s a real Dem bipartisan for you.

The Repubs have been way too bipartisan for years and thus have become the tax collectors for the welfars state.

The Dems of the 1900′s and the Dems in Repub clothing like TR have created this Government by and for Fantasy that will collapse. Like children blaming parents for letting them make mistakes.

Articles like this are telegraphed from some delusional dreamland.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive