Golis: Can Congress move beyond crippling partisanship?
A Democratic friend asked the questions: Why should I want to make friends with people who want to separate kids from their parents at the border? What’s the point of trying to find common ground with people who want to put aside the results of a democratic election?
This is the Democratic dilemma, isn’t it? Progressive Democrats wonder why they should compromise their convictions for people whose beliefs are antithetical to their own.
The new president wants to believe this isn’t a dilemma. Unlike other Democratic candidates, Joe Biden let it be known from the beginning that he believes the only way to get the country moving in the right direction is to work out his differences with Republicans in Congress. In Joe Biden’s world, compromise is not a dirty word.
From beginning to end, Biden’s inaugural speech on Wednesday became a plea for unity. “Without unity, there is no peace,” he said, “only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”
Biden remains steadfast in his conviction that a sufficient number of centrist Republicans can be persuaded if they think bipartisanship serves the best interests of the country.
Progressives in his own party say this approach is outdated, an artifact borrowed from the distant past. Before 2008, Biden served 36 years in the U.S. Senate.
Those critics note that President Barack Obama (with Biden as his vice president) came to office when the same commitment to bipartisanship, only to find out that his rivals were not interested. Famously, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell promised he would do everything he could to make sure Obama’s was a failed presidency.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the county is genuinely divided, both politically and culturally.
If you’re a member of Congress who represents a predominantly Democratic area — say, Sonoma County — you have no incentive to move your views to the center because the majority of your constituents have strong views about such issues as environmental protection, immigration, health care and abortion.
The same could be said for Republican representatives from red states. Incumbent Republicans may find themselves with primary opposition if they veer far from the latest GOP orthodoxy.
And political ambition often trumps good intentions. Democrat or Republican, officeholders risk defeat at the polls if they dare make a deal with the other side.
Over the past four decades, social scientists have reported a precipitous decline in how each party judges the good intentions of the other. As the website fivethirtyeight.com warned last year, negative partisanship “has reached levels that are not just bad for democracy, but are potentially destructive. And extreme partisan animosity is a prelude to democratic collapse.”
With the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, this danger to democracy moved beyond the realm of the political abstraction.
On a host of issues, it remains that a majority of voters in South Carolina or Louisiana live in different worlds than most voters in California.
And after four years of turmoil, no one would say the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is feeling charitable toward Republicans.
In theory, there should be issues that could lead to compromise solutions. A public works program or the amount of money committed to pandemic relief might be possibilities. In these areas, Biden will try to find agreements.
But it is easy to envision Biden’s good intentions turning to dust. Progressive Democrats won’t wait long to demand a new approach if the new president’s initial forays come up empty.
They know time is precious for a new presidency, especially when the pandemic requires prompt action to improve vaccine distribution and to relieve the widespread economic pain caused by the shuttering of thousands of businesses and the resulting loss of millions of jobs.
Biden can’t afford to wait very long.
When Democrats surprised themselves and won two Georgia Senate seats this month, the math changed. The narrow Democratic majorities in both houses present Biden with the opportunity to craft solutions that keep conservative Democratic senators in the fold (and maybe attract a handful of moderate Republicans.)
Progressives won’t be satisfied. California Democratic senators do not live with the same constraints as the Democratic senators from Montana or West Virginia.
As often happens, politics requires us to weigh what we would like to happen against what’s doable in the real world, and sometimes, an OK deal is better than no deal.
There’s a reason, after all, that making legislation is compared to making sausage. Along the way, some of the ingredients are less than appetizing.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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