If you’re like me, you probably grew up occasionally hearing the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge” when it was time for American politicians to put their differences aside on the global stage and show a united front. It set a precedent for not airing our dirty laundry in public.
But I never knew the history behind that phrase. So I decided to look it up. In 1948, the Truman administration was working on what would become the North Atlantic Treaty at a time when the Senate was controlled by Republicans. Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) worked with Truman’s State Department to craft the Vandenberg Resolution, which paved the way for the United States to negotiate an agreement with our European allies.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he [Vandenberg] asserted that “politics stops at the water’s edge” and cooperated with the Truman administration in forging bipartisan support.
I am reminded that our current Senate Majority Leader has a different view about the value of bipartisan support.
“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan.”
That was Senator McConnell’s rationale back in 2009 for his strategy of total obstruction to any domestic proposals from President Obama and Democrats. It was a complete rejection of what David Frum suggested would be a more productive approach. Much like Senator Vandenberg, Frum thought Republicans should work with Democrats to produce bipartisan legislation that at least incorporated conservative ideas. That path was rejected by McConnell.
Now, with Speaker Boehner’s move to go behind the President’s back to invite Netanyahu to address Congress and Tom Cotton’s letter to Iran undermining his negotiations, we see that same approach to foreign affairs. It is a complete repudiation of Vandenberg’s principle that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”
This is one of many bipartisan precedents Republicans have repudiated. Others include things like requiring a super-majority to pass most any bill through the Senate, using a vote on the debt ceiling as a hostage, and now – using the Social Security Disability Fund as a hostage.
A top adviser to President Barack Obama on Friday slammed a House Republican maneuver aimed at forcing a showdown on Social Security as early as next year, signaling that it won’t fly with the White House.
“The House provision was un-constructive and at odds with how this issue has been addressed time and time again in a bipartisan manner,” Brian Deese, senior advisor to the president, told reporters at a breakfast downtown hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “It is just not tenable to walk away from what has been a very clear bipartisan approach to addressing the [disability fund] issue.”…
The remarks set up a potential battle if Republicans seek to pass binding spending bills that forbid a reallocation. Congress has transferred funds between the program’s retirement and disability funds 11 times, most recently in 1994.
These precedents are not written into the Constitution, so there is nothing illegal about recent Republican moves to abandon them. On occasion, it is probably a good thing to review historical precedents to determine if they continue to be useful and/or productive.
But the precedents the GOP has abandoned all have to do with guidelines our elected officials have established to work together – despite their differences – for the good of this country. Regardless of who is right or wrong on those differences, their approach is hurting us all.