Bipartisanship Is Broken Despite Obama's Efforts, but There's Hope

Historical cycle is snapped. The fix may determine who runs Washington.

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Marc Dunkelman is vice president of the Democratic Leadership Council. 

For all of President Obama's attempts to work collaboratively across the aisle--forging a compromise on the recovery package, slowing health reform to accommodate the "Gang of Six," engaging most recently in a frank exchange with the House Republican Caucus--Republicans have remained largely dogged in their opposition to the administration's agenda. But tempting as it may be to blame the GOP's obstinate leadership, something else is at work. The ground which once fertilized bipartisan cooperation has grown fallow. To chart our way back, we need to understand the root cause. 

Nearly 20 years ago, Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek outlined a theory of American politics that divided the nation's history into successive cycles. Each cycle had begun, he argued, when one party emerged with a common mission buoyed by a broad coalition. For the decades that followed, that party would dominate Washington, prevailing most frequently in presidential contests, and maintaining a near iron grip on Congress. In the 72 years following Lincoln's first inauguration, for example, Republicans controlled the Senate for all but five congressional terms. And Democrats maintained control of the House for all but four of the years between FDR's landslide in 1932 and the end of 1994. 

More recently, however, the steady rhythm of political time has become something of a cacophony. No president since Ronald Reagan has been succeeded by a member of his same party. Despite Karl Rove's scheming, Republican dreams of a long-term governing majority were demolished in 2006. And while many hoped President Obama's victory would mark the beginning of a new political dynasty, Scott Brown's recent victory in Massachusetts has left many wondering whether the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill can survive the midterm election. 

Note just how dramatically the political landscape has evolved. Neither party today can claim a base of support so deep as to insulate it from the setbacks of a single off-year campaign. Neither has the sort of hold on Washington that the New Deal coalition enjoyed through the decades following World War II, or that Republicans maintained through the gilded age. The era of long-term governing majorities, it seems, has come to an end. 

That dramatic shift has upended the incentive which once drove bipartisan cooperation. When minority parties have little hope of ascending to power--as was once the case--caucus members are apt to view collaboration as the only way to affect policy. When a majority feels insulated from defeat, its members have fewer reasons to reject good ideas from across the aisle. 

But today, with control of Congress in perpetual flux, cooperating with members of the opposition can work against a party's short-term political interests: A vulnerable incumbent, fresh off a bipartisan triumph, can brag to voters back home. And so members across the aisle refuse to play ball. Moreover, even when they agree on the substance, members of the minority are loathe to take votes that could imperil their design on power. Think, for instance, of the seven Republican senators who recently worked to defeat the bipartisan fiscal commission they had previously cosponsored. 

All that said, most members still come to Washington hoping to legislate good policy. Most bristle at the straitjacket of partisanship. President Clinton, for example, worked to incorporate conservative ideas into his policy agenda even as Republicans were working to throw him out of office. Because that sort of rancor persists, it is time we look at bipartisanship through a new lens. 

Already, the Obama administration has taken great pains to embrace parts of the Republican Party's agenda. Cap-and-trade, for instance, has long been championed by Sen. John McCain. And the president waited for months as the Senate health bill, modeled on the reforms Mitt Romney implemented in Massachusetts, was molded to accommodate the policy demands of Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi, two Republicans who nevertheless withdrew their support for fear of conservative reprisals.