Bipartisanship ‘ain’t what it used to be’

BIPARTISANSHIP ‘AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE’…. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a key player in the health care reform debate, said the other day that the final package must have Republican support. It’s “not possible” and “not desirable” to reform the system any other way.

This is, alas, not new. A wide variety of Democratic leaders on the Hill have said the process matters at least as much as the policy, if not more so. Near the very top of the priority list is support from members of an increasingly right-wing party, turned out of power by the electorate after their humiliating failures at governing.

The Washington Post‘s Harold Meyerson understands the history and the larger dynamic a lot better than Conrad, Max Baucus, and others.

[B]ipartisanship ain’t what it used to be, and for one fundamental reason: Republicans ain’t what they used to be. It’s true that there was considerable Republican congressional support, back in the day, for Social Security and Medicare. But in the ’30s, there were progressive Republicans who stood to the left of the Democrats. Nebraska Republican George Norris, who for decades called for establishing public power companies to compete with price-gouging private companies, was the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the ’60s, Rockefeller Republicans supported civil rights legislation and Medicare.

Today, no such Republicans exist. In New England and New York, historically the home of GOP moderates, Republicans occupy just two of 51 House seats. Nationally, the party is dominated by Southern neo-Dixiecrats. In their book “Off Center,” political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson compared congressional Republicans of different eras and concluded that a Republican House member in 2003 with a voting record that placed him at the median of his party was 73 percent more conservative than the median GOP member of the early ’70s.

Max Baucus, then, isn’t negotiating universal coverage with the party of Everett Dirksen, in which many members supported Medicare. He’s negotiating it with the party of Barry Goldwater, who was dead set against Medicare. It’s a fool’s errand that is creating a plan that’s a marvel of ineffectuality and self-negation — a latter-day Missouri Compromise that reconciles opposites at the cost of good policy.

David Waldman reminded me the other day that Republican opponents of Social Security and Medicare used some of the same ridiculous arguments then that we’re hearing now. That’s absolutely true. It’s worth noting, though, that in those eras, there were plenty of centrist and center-left Republicans who rejected the nonsense and worked with Democrats on achieving progressive policy goals.

Those days are long gone. We’re now watching negotiations with Republicans like Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi, who are not only conservative, but fundamentally reject the goals the majority hopes to achieve through reform.

This is hopelessly twisted, and evidence of a political system that not only doesn’t work, but doesn’t know how to work. To reiterate a point from a couple of weeks ago, bills with bipartisan support have traditionally been the result of one party reaching out to moderates from the other party to put together a reasonably good-sized majority.

Under the current circumstances, though, the expectations for the majority are skewed — Republicans have almost entirely excised moderates from their ranks, and voters have handed Democrats a huge majority. It creates a ridiculous dynamic — demanded by Republicans, touted by the media, and accepted by a few too many Democrats — that the majority’s legislation is only legitimate if it’s endorsed by some liberals and some conservatives, as if the parties and ideologies of members aren’t supposed to have any meaning. As if it’s Democrats’ fault Republicans have become too conservative. As if elections don’t matter.

Ezra Klein’s observation from earlier is worth repeating: “The modern version of bipartisanship would be a compromise between Democrats who did believe in civil rights and Republicans who did not. The bill’s strongest provisions would thus be gutted, and we’d have a Civil Rights Act in name only, but at least it would be bipartisan.”