Blogs > HNN > Snow(e) Job: Tokenism is not Bipartisanship

Oct 16, 2009 7:52 am

Snow(e) Job: Tokenism is not Bipartisanship

When Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine voted for the Senate Finance Committee's health bill this week, Democrats rejoiced. "We have today a bipartisan bill," White House Press Secretary Joe Gibbs exulted. While it made sense for Democrats to welcome Snowe's support after an excruciating, high-stakes process, one moderate maverick crossing the aisle does not make the bill truly bipartisan. Mistaking a deviation for a trend in politics is like mistaking one defection for a peace treaty during wartime.

Wherever one stands on the health care debate, and on Senator Snowe's decision, it is misleading to call this week's tokenism bipartisanship. True bipartisanship means working together, building bridges, finding common interests, forging consensus. Bipartisanship is Republicans and Democrats spurred by the graciousness of John McCain and Barack Obama, celebrating the election of the first African-American President last November. Bipartisanship is McCain and 13 other centrist Senators creating a"Gang of Fourteen" to approve Republican judicial nominations so as to head off the"nuclear option" threatening Senate prerogatives Democrats were enjoying. And bipartisanship is the shared feelings of mourning mingled with patriotism after 9/11, epitomized by dozens of tearful, subdued members of Congress spontaneously singing"God Bless America" on the Capitol steps hours after the downing of Flight 93, which may have been targeting that very site.

Historically, true bipartisanship occurred when righteous renegades or statesmanlike party leaders led others to create a broad coalition, even if reluctantly. Back in 1964, Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader, was the key figure in breaking the 83-day filibuster against the landmark Civil Rights Bill. President Lyndon Johnson gave Senator Dirksen his famous"treatment," understanding the secret formula for Congressional cajolery: one part flattery, one part bribery, leavened by a sense of history. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, deployed by Johnson as point man, recalled wooing Dirksen aggressively but elegantly:"I began a public massage of his ego, and appealed to his vanity. I said he should look at this issue as 'a moral issue, not a partisan one.' The gentle pressure left room for him to be the historically important figure in our struggle, the statesman above bipartisanship…." More crassly, Humphrey admitted he even would have been willing to kiss"Dirksen's ass on the Capitol steps."

Humphrey finally succeeded without going that far. Dirksen broke the filibuster, quoting Victor Hugo:"Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality … in education and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied it is here." The cloture vote passed with a surprisingly wide margin of 71 to 29. When asked how he became a force pushing for civil rights Dirksen grandly replied,"I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind."

Dirksen's sense of history made him immortal - they named a Senate Office building after him, among other things. Moreover he saved the Republican Party. Today, whatever else their standing with African-Americans may be at any particular moment, Republicans can say with pride that they helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, thanks to Everett Dirksen.

Similarly, in the 1940s, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg helped lead his party and the nation away from a pinched, provincial, isolationism. President Harry Truman could construct his emerging Cold War foreign policy as bipartisan, thanks especially to Vandenberg. On Friday, April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, Truman lunched with seventeen congressional leaders. Vandenberg hailed this unprecedented move for ending Franklin Roosevelt's era of presidential unilateralism. Vandenberg's pronouncement that"politics stops at the water's edge" built popular consensus behind America's containment strategy. Vandenberg remained a Republican and occasionally contradicted the President, saying that frank exchanges facilitated true unity. The senator saw himself leading the"loyal opposition" putting"national security ahead of partisan advantage."

Senator Vandenberg's journey from ardent partisan isolationist to leading bipartisan interventionist reflected the massive ideological shift Franklin Roosevelt facilitated, and Harry Truman completed. Vandenberg's rift with the Republican isolationists underlined the continuing American resistance to becoming a world superpower. America did not even have a standing army. Many isolationists such as"Mr. Republican," Ohio Senator Robert Taft, reluctantly accepted the fight against fascism but hoped returning to normalcy included restoring America's characteristic insulation.

Facing a divided country and a treacherous world, Truman crusaded for cooperation. In his first speech to Congress, on April 16, 1945, Truman said only"a united nation deeply devoted to the highest ideals" could provide the"enlightened leadership" the world needed. This strategy, and both Vandenberg's and Truman's good works, were vindicated repeatedly, culminating with Soviet Communism's collapse, which historians credit as a bipartisan victory.

By contrast, a century earlier the"Compromise of 1850" was not much of a compromise -- or too much of a compromise. No one was happy. Henry Clay's nationalist attempt to craft an omnibus package had failed, rejected in the summer of 1850. The legislation passed - but ultimately failed - because the young Democratic Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas crafted a series of shifting congressional coalitions passing individual parts of the legislation, reflecting sectional differences not national concerns. Southerners supported the individual planks which pleased Southerners, while Northern representatives endorsed the pro-Northern legislation. There was no reconciliation, legislative or otherwise. The misnamed Compromise of 1850 failed to find common ground or common terms, the essential elements of bipartisanship. In playing to sectional differences not splitting the difference, the Compromise spread the pain without consolidating any gain.

Senators Dirksen and Vandenberg made history because they were not renegades but pioneers, leading their reluctant, partisan followers across the Red Sea to the promised land of bipartisanship to benefit America. Presidents Johnson and Truman - with assists from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others -- understood that bipartisanship is not about luring one or two mavericks across the aisle, but convincing a broad swath of citizens and leaders that change is coming, and better to be on the right side of history.

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Michael Green - 10/19/2009

Mr. Mainello, with all due respect, to say the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression by five years is like saying the balloon boy will grow up to cure cancer: there is no way to prove that is the case. I would add that no reputable historian with respect for his or her craft would say that.

Maarja Krusten - 10/18/2009

As Mr. Green points out, Joe Gibbs was the very popular coach of the NFL Washington Redskins (1981-1992 and again from 2004 until January 2008). I had the pleasure of once standing outside the District Building with a large group of fans and seeing him hoist the Super Bowl trophy (he coached the Skins to three such trophies). The secretary at my work unit, the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives, was a cheerleader for the Skins during the late 1980s. We archivists greatly enjoyed hearing her stories about Super Bowl XXII. While Joe Gibbs had a talent for bringing disparate elements together and an appealing, self-effacing personality, and it’s nice to see his name evoked here, I don’t think evoking him is what Dr. Troy had in mind.

More to the point, I’d like to hear Dr. Troy’s take on the Democracy Corps (Carville group’s) study of Republican voters which got some play in recent days. The Carville group noted differences among Independents and conservative leaning swing voters on the one hand and large elements of conservative Republicans. Voters always are in the mix.

Looking at the Republican party’s base, TPM reported that Democracy Corps found that "They believe Obama is ruthlessly advancing a 'secret agenda' to bankrupt the United States and dramatically expand government control to an extent nothing short of socialism," the analysis said." While these voters are disdainful of a Republican Party they view to have failed in its mission, they overwhelmingly view a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of this country's founding principles and are committed to seeing the president fail."

TPM reported that “Carville explained: ‘What they want is, if people in Washington look at the Republican Party, they say, gee, they really oppose everything the President does. What these folks say is what they're doing is not enough, they want more opposition. If you're a Republican and you watch this, and you don't want to get [opposition to yourself in] primaries, there's nothing here that tells you to go compromise on anything -- quite the contrary.’"

On the national level, Obama won election by appealing to Independents (some of whom were former Republicans) as well as Democrats. Analysts believe many Independents lean somewhat right on fiscal issues and more progressive on social issues. Democracy Corps found that "One of the most telling differences between the partisan Republican groups and the independent groups was the language they used. Conservative Republicans fully embrace the 'socialism' attacks on Obama and believe it is the best, most accurate framework for describing him and his agenda. Independents largely dismiss these attacks as the kind of overblown partisan rhetoric that obscures the facts and only serves to cheapen the political discourse."

One member of the Carville group explained that while conservative Republicans in the survey expressed a desire that the President fail, the view among “independent voters, especially those who might lean somewhat conservative, is very different. "They harbor doubts, there's not doubt, but they want to see the president succeed, they want to see the country move forward," said Agne. "And that's diametrically opposed to what the Republican base voters want -- they want him to fail."

This suggests that Dr. Troy needs to examine what type of voters are the dominant group in a particular district or state and what various legislators may be hearing from constituents.

Robert Lee Gaston - 10/16/2009

Why are liberal Republicans called moderate? Just asking.

Mike A Mainello - 10/16/2009

One of the major problems facing America today is the lack of a unbiased, independent press. The politicians understand which members of the press to spoon feed there points to and they know they will be presented in a non-critical fashion. This limits them from having to be bi-partisan.

Also, many will argue that your examples are not one of successful policy. While it might "feel" good to implement the 2 policies you mentioned, they really hurt America in the long run.

The New Deal prolonged the Great Depression by at least 5 years. The Great Society has severely the true integration of all people.

Michael Green - 10/16/2009

First, the White House press secretary is Robert Gibbs. Joe Gibbs played a big role in Washington as the coach of the Redskins.

Now to the point here. I agree with Professor Troy. Bipartisanship is wonderful. But I think we would benefit from asking WHY anyone would call ONE Republican vote for a Democratic-sponsored bill bipartisanship. The answer lies in the decline of bipartisanship generally on big issues, which Professor Troy alludes to without really delving into it. I am left to ponder the many times that bipartisanship was ignored and things got done--the New Deal and Great Society in general, for example.