James Morone: Bipartisan fantasies

Roundup: Historians' Take

[James Morone is a professor of political science at Brown University.]

“THIS is not a time for partisanship,” declared Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, when he accepted President Obama’s invitation to serve as commerce secretary. By last week, Mr. Gregg had changed his mind, citing “irreconcilable conflicts.” For historians, this outcome was predictable: Bipartisan dreams have been crashing into political reality from the earliest days of the Republic.

Only a few months after his first election, George Washington dropped by the Senate to solicit advice about a treaty — but all he got was a loud and agitated debate between the senators. Already they were breaking into factions. Washington, who believed that partisan strife would be “fatal” to the new nation, marched out with what one observer called “a discontented air of sullen dignity.”

Now it’s President Obama’s turn. He seems eager to put aside small political differences and to restore a culture of cooperation in Washington. But it’s going to be a long, hard effort because, well, that golden bipartisan era never existed.

The popular myth of getting past politics, in its modern form, dates back to the 1880s, when reformers known as Mugwumps challenged the corrupt bosses, powerful parties and political machines. The rough-and-tumble party politicians sneered at these well-educated, upper-crust activists: “namby-pamby, good-goody gentlemen who sip cold tea” and “forget that parties are not built by deportment or ladies’ magazines or gush.” And while the Mugwumps eventually achieved a lot of their reforms, their larger aspiration — nonpartisan politics — always slipped out of reach.

Yet modern Mugwumps keep searching for a nonpartisan golden age to emulate. They point, for example, to the early years of the cold war when foreign policy consensus repudiated isolationism and engaged the world. That elite consensus never reached as far as Congress, where the House Un-American Activities Committee was hunting Joe McCarthy’s slippery list of Reds and traitors....

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