By John Lawrence
Dr. Lawrence, a former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has written extensively about Congress and American politics.
President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, on Wednesday night, will be scrutinized to assess his commitment to working with Republicans. There is nothing wrong with reaching across the aisle to seek common ground.
But insisting on bipartisanship — given the major policy divide between the parties on economic recovery, tax reform, climate change and health care — usually guarantees gridlock (which promotes voter cynicism) or actions that are watered down and ineffective (which are condemned by everyone, right and left).
There is nothing wrong with being partisan. Over a century ago, Representative Jacob Fassett, a New York Republican, counseled, “We were all elected by partisans because we were partisans, and as such represented party purposes as expressed by party platforms,” adding that a politician should “have opinions and convictions” and not “be a political chocolate éclair.”
In the decades after World War II, bipartisan policymaking became the norm because the ideological divisions within both parties — for example, there were numerous liberal Republicans who, since Reconstruction, supported civil rights — compelled cross-party alliances. Most issues did not break down ideologically by party. In fact, for much of the 20th century, supporters of political reform, environmentalism and civil rights could be found as easily in the Republican as in the Democratic Party.
A sizable cohort of moderate to liberal Republicans like Jacob Javits, Clifford Case and Mark Hatfield provided the votes to pass progressive legislation. Similarly, during periods of conservative activism, Republicans could reach across the aisle to find conservative Democrats (like “boll weevils”) to help pass their priorities.
But those circumstances no longer exist, and as a result, bipartisanship has become the Sasquatch of American politics: rarely seen but fervently sought. The opportunities for finding cross-party support for significant legislation, except in response to a national calamity, like the Troubled Asset Relief Program for the financial crisis, have evaporated. The parties have fundamentally changed — there are now very few liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats — and that transformation has hollowed out the middle ground of American politics. Continuing to demand bipartisanship as the validator of sound policy is not only fanciful but also self-defeating.
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