Why Democrats Should Try Bipartisanship

Democrats should reach out to Republicans in order to sway swing voters.

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Marc Dunkelman is vice president of the Democratic Leadership Council.

For President Obama, healthcare reform was, by any standard, a big deal. The administration and the leadership in both houses of Congress managed to herd cats, forging the support necessary to win over members across the broad ideological expanse of the Democratic Party. But even as the substance of the bill was largely bipartisan (Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited 200 GOP amendments included in the final package), the legislation was made into law with Democratic votes alone. And the vitriol that marked the aftermath, including the threats and vile behavior by some of those most adamantly opposed to the president's plan, will soon reopen what has become a real bone of contention among the ranks of those who want the president to succeed. Should we abandon, or embrace, the spirit of bipartisanship?

For many on the left, a glance over the political battlefield makes the answer plain. As demonstrated by their obstinacy in the face of health reform, few Republicans have any intention of working with us constructively. So why continue to reach out? What was the point of waiting the summer for Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi to help craft a bill they later refused to endorse? What is the upside of negotiating with Republican senators who voted against the fiscal commission bill they coauthored? [Full disclosure: My boss, Bruce Reed, was recently tapped to serve as executive director of the commission Obama created by executive order.] It is time, many argue, for Democrats to stop negotiating against themselves.

And truth be told, that assessment of the political landscape has a lot to recommend it. Notwithstanding the bits of bipartisanship to emerge over the last year—limited Republican support for the recovery act, Sen. Olympia Snowe's initial support for the Senate health reform package, the passage of a $15 billion jobs bill—conservatives have remained largely unwilling to forge compromise. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina showed his hand entirely when, several months ago, he told a reporter: "If we're able to stop Obama on [healthcare reform], it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

But bipartisanship's critics miss the larger point. The reason to reach out to the Republican establishment is not to steal their votes in Washington—it is to win over their voters across the country. The question is not whether there is a way to get John Boehner or Mitch McConnell to support the president's agenda. It is whether the nation's swing voters, the Obama voters who subsequently cast ballots for Scott Brown and the moderates who voted for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, stick with the president in the long term.

If progressives are not able to hold onto the mainstream electorate, largely suburban and exurban voters, many whom have earned high school but not college degrees, we will find it terribly difficult to maintain our majorities on Capitol Hill. That is why Obama was so smart to pivot from the momentous signing of the bill to a new campaign, begun at a speech in Iowa, explaining how the bill will benefit small business.

No matter what sort of vitriolic rhetoric Republicans use to paint the administration, there is ample enough reason to maintain a fealty to the cause of bipartisanship. Voters believe moderate approaches that balance the interests of businesses and individuals present the best solutions to the nation's problems. We ought not to worry about winning over the Republicans. Our goal should be to bleed them of the political capital they will build if Democrats are framed as out-of-touch.

Which brings us to the final point. The nation is not interested in bipartisanship for bipartisanship's sake. Theoretically, legislation that privatized Social Security (as conservatives might prefer) and simultaneously restored the failed old welfare system (as some liberals might like) might well pass muster as a "bipartisan" bill. But it would be a dead bill walking.