The Politics of Bipartisanship

Question: Can you talk a little about the history of bipartisanship in Washington? In other words, how is bipartisanship in Congress today different then in the past?

Ornstein: There was an op-ed in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago by a political scientist saying that there never was bipartisanship and it’s a fallacy. But he is wrong. We have had periods when democrats and republicans worked together pretty well. Sometimes it was on some of these gray issues. The democrats and republicans together engineered the civil rights movement. It wouldn’t have happened without republicans. If you go back to the era from the 1930s through 1960s, and even into the 1970s, the Democratic Party was about half southerners who tended to be more conservative, and the other half from urban areas outside the south who tended to be more liberal. The Republican Party had about one-fifth to a quarter of its members who were more moderate or liberal and came mostly from the northeast or from the west coast, and what really governed Washington is what we called “the conservative coalition” that was the southern democrats joining with the majority of republicans more often than not. Now that may not be bipartisan from the perspective of somebody who thinks it’s the liberals working with the moderates, but it was in fact by every standard bipartisan. It also doesn’t mean that you have governance where everybody works like a coalition government, where the two sides have to work out there differences.

Partisanship is always a part of a democratic political system. From the beginning, The Framers of our Constitution never mentioned parties in The Constitution, they weren’t thinking along these lines, but they developed right from the beginning. You need a way to organize the differences you have over policy or to organize elections so you can have an orderly transfer of power, you don’t want to just have individuals out there not having a real sense of where they going and not know what people are representing their institutions.

So if you have parties, you have partisanship. The difference between the earlier era and now is partisanship used to mean that you view the people on the other side as adversaries. And if you are an adversary, that means we may disagree on something really strongly today but we may be allied together tomorrow. So I am going to be careful about what I say and I can view you as a personal friend even if we have those disagreements. Today, instead of viewing the other party as adversaries they tend to think of them as the enemy. The enemy you want to destroy. And so it’s a much different dynamic. That is the real difference between now and the past.       

Question: What has brought about this transformation?

Ornstein: One part of it is the regional realignment in American politics. In the aftermath of the civil war, all the way up to the 1960s the south was solemnly democratic. The democrats kept the majorities for 40 consecutive years in the House of Representatives from 1934 to 1994 and for much of that era it was because they won almost all the seats in the south. The republicans had a base in the northeast and the west coast. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 he turned to one of his close aides and said that this is going to cost the Democratic Party the region for a generation or more. So from the 1960s on, the south began to transform itself, first becoming very competitive and then becoming a republican base. At the same time, the northeast lost the vast majority of its republican representation. The west coast, Washington, Oregon and California, went from being a bastion of moderate republicans to being a pretty solidly democratic region.

What happened was that the parties became more homogeneous, more like European parties, and democrats moved left and the republicans moved right. Then you throw in the modern media where it’s all politics all the time, leading to what can be described as a “permanent campaign.” Then you throw in the fact that from 1994 on, the numbers have been close enough in both parties that the stakes are very high, the majority can change at any time and that tends to create a more partisan division.

Question: Under what conditions does bipartisan cooperation become difficult?

Ornstein: Bipartisan cooperation generally becomes more difficult when times are good, when you are not in the middle of the crisis. It becomes more difficult when the margins are closer so that the minority party senses that they can actually win back the majority. The best way to do this is not to work with the people in the majority, because it makes them look good, it’s to try and trip them up to make sure they fail. It becomes even more difficult with the exceedingly partisan media, which further adds to the divisions.

Question: Over the past few decades it appears that the population has become ideologically divided, Bill O'Reilly calls it a culture war between "traditionalists" and "secular-progressives.” In your opinion, is there a deep ideological rift within the Untied States that did not exist 20, 50, 150 years ago?

Ornstein: No, for example, if you go back to the early 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower, a republican, got about 40% support from African Americans. This time around, John McCain got about 3% support, so there are some differences. But the liberal conservative differences, the whole notion of which party believes in stronger government, larger government or a weaker government, those have tended to be there.

Now some of the social differences such as abortion and same sex relationships were not issues at all in 1950s. Abortion became a big issue from the 1970s when we go the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. Same sex relationships really were not an issue until the last ten years. Issues such as prayer in the schools were not as dominant because the Cold War tended to suppress some of them. However, a lot of the divisions both between the parties and within the parties, the main street republicans against the Wall Street republicans, or the big business against the small business have been there. The divisions among democrats have also been there.

Question: Does bipartisanship, or governing from the center, creates the best policies for the United States in the long-run? What are the benefits and drawbacks of governing from the center?

Ornstein: It isn’t necessarily the case that the best policy solution is always splitting the difference between the two. But having said that, generally speaking, if you are going to implement a change that is a major change is society and it’s going to shake up people’s lives, the broader the bipartisan leadership cooperation you have the greater the likelihood that the public will accept it even if it causes them pain.

Part of the challenge to government is if you try to do things for the long term, you regularly have to say to people, “trust us, this will hurt today but you will get something out of it next month, or five years from now.” Most Americans don’t trust their leaders and if you got the people in charge saying “trust us, this will hurt today but…” and the opposition party is saying, “they are lying, don’t believe a word of it,” they are much less likely to accept it.

So what you want to do is to try and have a strong imprint of the majority but make some opportunities for the minority to have an input. Listen to their ideas because they might have good ideas, and some of these policy areas are also not necessarily left, right, liberal or conservative issues. If you take the energy issue for example, there is nothing particularly liberal about conservation and there is nothing particularly conservative about exploration but we define them along those lines. There is no reason you can’t find a compromise that involves more aggressive exploration for energy sources as well as more aggressive conservation.

Question: It seems that today’s news media is also deeply divided. Is this a byproduct of the ideological division among the population, or is it simply a savvy business model designed to create the maximum profit by attracting and keeping a specific audience? Is this a recent phenomenon and has this hurt bipartisanship cooperation in Congress?

Ornstein: It’s a recent phenomenon but it’s also something we had in the 19-th century. We had very partisan newspapers back then. So in a way, this is a “Back to the Future” sort of phenomenon. The major reason for it is economics. It’s a globalization phenomenon. In an era where you can get information online, young people don’t read newspapers anymore. We used to have a situation where there were many afternoon newspapers, because most people would take a train or a bus back and forth to work and they would read it. People don’t commute in the same way anymore, so these newspapers had real trouble.

Television networks had a monopoly, everybody watched, so you would reach out to the largest audience. Now they are dying, the economic model doesn’t fit and on cable the news model that fits is to find a niche audience. The niche audience approach works and Fox News pioneered this. Such audience comes back day after day and it’s a more partisan approach that drives them. On cable you don’t need the broad audience, you can be economically successful with a small audience. One of the consequences of getting people on the right or on the left is that you don’t share the same base of knowledge or information. We learned from our surveys that people have very different views about factual things if they regularly watch Fox News or MSNBC. Basically, all you get is the reinforcement of the particular point of view. So it definitely makes it harder for bipartisanship.

What also has an impact is if you are a congressman and you want to get on television. If you are a centrist, you are going to have much more difficulty than if you represent a strong point of view. One good example is Michele Bachmann, a republican representative from Minnesota, a very conservative republican. Most of her colleagues think that she is not quite all there, she says some absolutely bizarre things, many of them false and she then has to go back and correct herself. But she is on television all the time because she says things that Fox loves. So that encourages people to move more to the extremes. The single largest phenomenon here, however, is that so many congressional districts are safe for either one party or the other, and when the members of congress go back home, everybody in the district repeats the same thing, it becomes self reinforcing.

Question: Can you please give us a few suggestions on how we can improve bipartisanship in Washington; improve the efficiency and decision making of congressmen and get things done?

Ornstein: One very simple suggestion is to change the schedule. Today in Roll Call, the newspaper on Capitol Hill, Dan Glickman, who was a member of Congress before becoming a cabinet member, wrote a piece talking about what things were like in his day and how back then every member of Congress lived in Washington with their kids and their families and they all interacted together and built friendships and relationships. It’s much harder to view someone as an enemy and to say vicious things about them if the next day you are going to be seeing them at your children’s school. We moved away from that. People now mostly keep their families back home and spend, at most, two or three days a week running around Washington. They either live in their offices or little efficiency apartments; they don’t interact with their colleagues very much. If you move to a schedule of five days a week, three weeks out of four, then people would have an incentive to spend more time here with their colleagues and it might humanize things. 

The second thing is what we call the regular order in the legislative process. If you have a regular order where you actually have real hearings, you mark up bills and you do conference committees, have real debates and offer opportunities for minorities to participate, they have less reason to be shrill and to vote against everything you want to do. It’s very hard for the majority to do that because if there is an open amendment process and you don’t try to twist arms on the amendments, you can lose, but you have to accept the possibility that you can lose. So those two things, plus some of the things that President Obama has been talking about, regularly traveling to Capital Hill and inviting members of Congress for drinks or Super Bowl parties, even if they voted against him that day it can help to change the tone. That’s what we have to start with if we want to create a different atmosphere in Washington.

-- 04/10
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