Bipartisan Baloney

Why today’s political dealmaking comes from headlocks, not hugs. 

President Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner.

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner shake hands during a meeting with congressional leaders.

Pool photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

In Washington, when senators from the two parties arrive simultaneously at a microphone, you’ve got yourself a “gang.” Threats of bipartisanship soon follow. White papers and frameworks are issued. The lifespan of a gang is well-documented: Its members rush through the marble halls of Congress, trailed by a clot of reporters. Then it’s on to the green rooms before they become extinct. Yet, even in Washington, hope still triumphs over experience. So this week, members of the “gang of eight” came to the microphone pushing immigration reform, and the old folk tales of bipartisanship were once again in the news.

Amateur meteorologists claim to have spotted other flickers of the bipartisan phenomena. President Obama and Republican leaders reached a deal on a three-month extension of the debt limit and a bill to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy. These are not historic acts, but why not raise a glass in tribute if for no other reason than to break the monotony of having to constantly  raise a glass to drown our frustration. 

But let’s not mistake this for genuine bipartisanship. Or, if this is the new standard for bipartisanship, then we should change our definition of it. These examples of ghost bipartisanship are born from pressure, not cooperation. Lawmakers aren’t reasoning together; one side is crying uncle. That will almost certainly be true of any immigration reform measure that passes (if the reform effort doesn’t break down under the weight of the partisanship itself).

The folk story of bipartisanship goes like this: The two parties tackle a common problem, they fight like hell, but both sides ultimately give up something to get a deal. In 1983, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill negotiated a compromise over Social Security. In 1990, George H.W. Bush forged a deal to reduce the deficit with Democratic leaders. In 1997, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich hammered out a balanced budget agreement. These bipartisan moments were not simply the product of reason divorced from acrimony and politics. As President Truman said, “There was never a nonpartisan in politics. A man cannot be a nonpartisan and be effective in a political party.” But today’s droplets of bipartisanship are distinct from that tradition. They come not from shared sacrifice but from one side giving in. Charles Krauthammer says Republicans got rolled on the fiscal cliff talks. The Weekly Standard and Sen. Rand Paul say Republicans blinked on the debt limit fight.

On the issue of immigration, the bipartisan opportunities exist not because wise men from both parties have decided to solve one of the nation’s most pressing issues, but because Republicans are giving in to the pressure created by the last election. This fact is clear by the host of Republicans who once opposed or were skeptical of any immigration-reform package that included “amnesty” but who are now supporting it. It’s not about policy; it’s about politics. Similarly, on the question of gun control, there is an emerging consensus that Congress will support background checks for gun purchases. This too could be called bipartisanship, except that it’s an emergency event brought on by the Newtown, Conn., massacre, which means it tells us nothing about the baseline health of bipartisanship.

If recent cooperation shouldn’t be confused with new bipartisan vigor, there’s another new reason to be skeptical: history. Barack Obama’s re-election marks only the second time that three consecutive presidents have served two consecutive four-year terms.* The last time was Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. This gives us three modern examples of the presidential learning curve. After re-election, presidents of both parties draw the same conclusion: Bipartisanship is a pipe dream.

In Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address, he declared his election would bring about a new bipartisan era. “The American people returned to office a president of one party and a Congress of another. Surely they did not do this to advance the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore.” This was true long enough for the president to reach a budget deal with Republicans—just before his second term devolved into impeachment hearings. When Republicans pursued him for lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice, Clinton interpreted it as nothing more than blind partisanship.

In 2004, after George W. Bush was re-elected, the man who once promised to unite and not divide entered his second term with a far dimmer view of compromise. “I’ve got the will of the people at my back,” he said despite his narrow victory. Bush’s definition of bipartisanship meant other people falling in line: “I’ll reach out to everyone who shares our goals.” Bush later admitted that when giving his State of the Union address, he relished the partisan reaction it provoked. “Sometimes I look through that teleprompter and see reactions. I’m not going to characterize what the reactions are, but nevertheless it causes me to want to lean a little more forward into the prompter, if you know what I mean. Maybe it’s the mother in me.”

Like Clinton, President Obama faces the prospect of hammering out deals with a divided government, but he reached the opposite conclusion. The president’s aggressive second-term trajectory was evident even before he gave his inauguration speech, but the speech set the emotional tone for a second term full of conflicts. When Obama’s top political adviser argues that Democrats don’t have “an opposition party worthy of the opportunity,” it cemented the proof.

There may be bipartisan progress in the months to come, but it will be of a tougher kind. Members of the two parties may join arms and make a deal, but it won’t be the result of fellow feeling, conciliation, or understanding. If there’s going to be gang-like behavior that achieves bipartisanship, it’s more likely to come through a headlock than a hug.

Correction, Feb. 1, 2013: This article originally misstated the length of a presidential term. (Return to the corrected sentence.)