The Destructiveness of Partisanship

by David L. Boren


From the earliest periods of our nation’s history, thoughtful leaders have worried about the dangers posed by political parties or factions. George Washington often expressed his fear that factions would prevent Americans from coming together to take crucial action. He viewed the rise of political parties with alarm. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers about the need to prevent any one political faction from achieving dominance.

Over the years, Americans have come to accept political parties and the competition between them as both inevitable and to some degree healthy. While competition has its benefits and can lead to more accountability and better performance, partisanship clearly becomes destructive when partisan advantage is elevated above the national interest. That is exactly what has happened in recent years. The American people are rightly fed up with the situation but feel helpless to change it. Poll after poll indicates that the people are not satisfied with the choices the two major political parties have provided in recent presidential elections. At times half or more of those polled have expressed the need for another political organization that would unite the country. Those who describe themselves as moderates make up a large part of both existing parties but feel more and more disenfranchised by the extreme polar elements of each. John Zogby recently wrote about the results his polling organization found: “The middle ground of the political electorate is expanding, and the fringes are contracting across the political spectrum. There is widespread dissatisfaction with where America is headed right now!” He pointed to his polling data indicating that 80 percent of Americans believe that it is “very important” that the next president be a person who can unite the country. Another 58 percent said that it was “very important” that the next president cross party lines to work with political opponents. Another recent survey found that 83 percent of Americans believe that the nation is so polarized between Democrats and Republicans that Washington can’t make progress in solving major problems. Americans desire viable choices, but the current state of affairs reminds me of what Harvard political scientist V. O. Key wrote about the two-party system in his 1966 book, The Responsible Electorate: “Given the choice between scoundrels, the electorate will likely pick one.” Seventy-three percent of Americans recently polled felt that it would be good to have choices in the next presidential election in addition to the Republican and Democratic nominees.

At a time when Americans urgently need to come together to act decisively at home and abroad, partisan bickering has paralyzed our ability to act. For example, it is long past time to bring our budget deficits under control and to contain the costs of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Many of the solutions are obvious, but each party is afraid to act because of the attacks they know will come from the other side to artfully press the emotional hot buttons of American voters.

Specific solutions to foreign policy crises like those in the Middle East get delayed for fear that normal diplomatic dialogue, even with nations that are not our allies, will be portrayed as weakness or being soft on terrorism. Long gone is the wise agreement that “politics should stop at the water’s edge” when it comes to international matters so that the United States can speak with a single voice. Now romanticized as irretrievably lost are the times when members of Congress had strong personal friendships across party lines. We are told that we cannot recreate the days when Democratic Senate leader Lyndon Johnson and Republican leader Everett Dirksen could sit down over dinner after a heated public debate and meet each other halfway to strike an agreement on the most controversial issues of the day.

No fundamental obstacle prevents the spirit of bipartisanship that brought the United States to world leadership in the twentieth century from being recreated. It must be done. As citizens we must insist on it by punishing at the ballot box those who shun bipartisan cooperation.

We must recall how constructive bipartisan cooperation can be. Think about what was accomplished in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The blueprint that brought us victory in the Cold War and sustained us for more than four decades could never have been put together without bipartisan cooperation. Year after year, these solid policies were consistently followed under presidents and Congresses of both political parties.

Imagine how easily the Republicans in Congress could have scuttled the Marshall Plan proposed by President Truman, General George C. Marshall, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. If today’s partisanship had been present in the late 1940s, the Republican opposition would have been running ads saying, “The Democrats want to tax you to help the very people who killed and wounded our fathers and sons, who threatened our security and brought us economic hardship.” It doesn’t take much imagination to predict what the result would have been. Perhaps they would have added, “Bring our boys home. Why keep troops in Europe now that the war is over? Let Europeans defend themselves against the Russians.”

Instead, great bipartisan leaders such as Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Republican leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined Democrats in supporting the Marshall Plan and the policy of containment. He and others passed up the opportunity to score cheap shots against the party in power and, instead, put the national interest first. Bipartisan statesmanship by leaders of both parties brought America to leadership abroad and progress at home, with a doubling of real incomes for Americans in less than thirty years. This progress came because of increases in productivity produced by such programs as the GI Bill, which made the American workforce the best educated in the world.

How have we come to lose that spirit of bipartisanship on crucial matters? Why do so many politicians no longer feel an obligation to act responsibly and to reject purely partisan agendas when the national interest is at stake? There are several reasons.

The principal cause of the demise of bipartisanship is the way in which we finance campaigns. I return to that issue later, but suffice it to say here that the cost of being elected today bears no resemblance to the cost of campaigns even twenty, let alone fifty, years ago. The money comes more and more from groups with single-issue agendas as opposed to the broad national interest. Loyalty to party leaders and party agendas also drives an increasingly large part of the distribution of campaign funds.

Bad credit loans usually can’t exceed 30% of the borrower’s income. This amount is not arbitrary, lenders have evaluated that any amount over that percentage would compromise the ability of the borrower to cope with unexpected circumstances that may reduce his available income.

Slowly but surely, we have institutionalized partisanship. When I first came to the U.S. Senate in 1979, there was an unwritten tradition that a sitting senator never campaigned against a senator who was up for re-election, even if he or she was of the opposing party. When I left the Senate in 1994, I may have been the last remaining senator to have still followed that unwritten policy known as the Mansfield Rule. It was named for Democratic Senate leader Mike Mansfield, who had urged this policy of bipartisanship for many years. As the tradition disintegrated, I sometimes observed senators from one party taking notes about votes that could be used against senators of the other party in attack ads during campaigns. I remember the day when a senator sitting next to me in a committee meeting said that our colleague on the committee from the other party had a good amendment but that he was going to vote against it. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” he replied, “the SOB came to my state and campaigned against me and lied about me, and I’ll never support anything he proposes.”

Party caucuses did not meet very regularly until the 1960s and 1970s. Earlier, senators of the same party met alone together only a few times each year. Then the meetings became monthly. By the time I arrived in Washington, the meetings were weekly. Each week, all of the Republicans met in a separate room together and had lunch and a three-hour discussion. The Democrats did the same. Nearly always, the topic was how we could force the members of the opposing party to vote on a proposal that would make them look like they were against education, or family values, or national defense. Almost none of the caucus luncheon discussions had to do with serving the national interest. The talk was all about positioning to win the next election. Dissenters who wanted to seek a bipartisan agreement with the other party were subjected to peer pressure to be more loyal to the party. In the House of Representatives, there was even greater pressure, and committee assignments or chairmanships were put at risk if the party line was not followed.

No equivalent institution existed to encourage bipartisanship. No regular bipartisan caucuses met in which moderates of both parties could work together to fashion an American approach to issues.

What a contrast the current political climate presents with what I experienced earlier in my Senate career. I recall a day when the Senate was voting on a proposal to change the tax law as it applied to horses. Senator Max Baucus of Montana and I, both Democrats and both freshmen, had misunderstood the proposal and had voted against the interest of our states on the roll call. Before the vote was closed, a senior Republican from Tennessee, Senator Howard Baker, came over and explained the proposal to us. Since we were from “horse-raising states,” he told us, he thought we would want to change our votes. We did. Today, you would rarely if ever see a senior member of one party helping freshman members of the other party avoid political mistakes. In addition, no longer do new senators or representatives of different parties become well acquainted and form personal friendships. The dozen new senators who came to the U.S. Senate when I did in January of 1979 all became close friends. Half of us were Democrats and half were Republicans. We regularly enjoyed potluck dinners at one another’s homes with our spouses. Party differences never interfered with our friendships or kept us from working together.

Because redistricting fashioned by increasingly partisan state legislatures has reduced the number of truly competitive House districts, party leaders and partisanship have grown even stronger. Party leaders are able to dominate other members. The distribution of party-controlled money has added to the trend. Each year, more and more moderates voluntarily or involuntarily leave Congress.

Soon after I first arrived in the Senate in 1979, Howard Baker said to me, “Remember it is those who play between the forty-yard lines [the moderates] who really determine the outcome of the contest.” At that time at least one-fourth, perhaps one-third, of senators potentially belonged to that middle group. Today the number has shrunk to four or five senators in each party out of one hundred.

In earlier years, and especially during the Cold War, it was not unusual for congressional leaders of both parties to meet with the president and key cabinet officers to work out real policy decisions. These meetings have become rare and have largely turned into photo ops aimed at creating a public relations image of bipartisanship instead of the real thing.

We all remember the scene on the Capitol steps shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Prominent congressional leaders of both parties locked arms and sang “God Bless America.” It was a wonderful moment. If only it could have continued! The bipartisan spirit lasted barely a week. What can be done to create more true bipartisanship and to reverse the relentless march toward destructive partisanship?

There are no easy answers. But the difficult answers can be identified. First, a major answer is campaign finance reform. More of the financial resources for candidates need to come from individual contributors in a candidate’s home state. These homestate voters and contributors can evaluate members of Congress according to their total record of service instead of on the basis of a few votes important to special-interest groups. The framers of our Constitution intended for members of Congress to represent the citizens of their home states and districts, not well-financed special-interest groups that may have little connection to those home constituencies.

Second, as we struggle to create bipartisanship, we must seek to create institutions that encourage it. If after 9/11 President George W. Bush had created real joint executive-congressional working groups that met frequently, the bipartisanship symbolized by the locking of arms on the Capitol steps might have lasted.

We have learned that when presidential administrations develop major policies without real input from the opposition party in Congress, a predictable partisan reaction results, followed by open political warfare and grid-lock. It would be worth trying to institutionalize regular behind-closed-door meetings of standing bipartisan working groups that would include the key legislative and executive branch leaders in two or three key fields. One of these joint “mini-cabinets” might be in the field of foreign policy and national security. It would include not only the president but also the secretaries of state and defense and the national security adviser. It could include the ranking Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate committees on Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Intelligence. A similar group might be formed on domestic economic issues. These groups could meet regularly to try to hammer out consensus proposals. It is always easier to compromise behind closed doors before major presidential proposals are made than to do so after they are made public and battle lines have been drawn.

Third, after 9/11, I believe that a bipartisan program for major public works and infrastructure investment could have been agreed upon if the leaders of both parties had met together at that time. We have been underinvesting in basic infrastructure for many years. Needed infrastructure investments could have created jobs in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and helped prevent the economic slowdown that followed.

Of course, there will never be full agreement on all major issues, and our political system would not be healthy if there were. However, we must at least attempt to find new ways and new institutions that will make more likely the formation of a consensus on how to deal with the major challenges that threaten our national well-being. It is even worth trying to encourage moderates in both parties to form a bipartisan caucus that meets regularly to act as an antidote to purely partisan caucuses. Perhaps it is too much to hope that the leaders of both parties in both houses would urge members to reinstate the practice of not campaigning against each other. The leaders will do so only if they feel they will be rewarded in the court of public opinion.

Finally, if the cycle of ever increasing partisanship is not reversed, we should elect an independent president who comes from neither party. That president could pledge to form a national unity cabinet composed of the best-qualified men and women in both parties, much like Churchill’s “war cabinet” during World War II. The use of joint legislative- executive branch working groups might enable an independent president to govern effectively for at least a limited time.

I hope that an independent would serve as president without forming a new third party. It is not necessary in any of the fifty states to form a new party in order to place a candidate on the ballot. An independent candidate may be placed on the ballot in all states, with a vice presidential candidate of his or her selection, by collecting fewer than 900,000 signatures on petitions nationwide. In most states, a three-month period opens as early as March 1 during which petitions must be circulated. It is thus possible for an independent presidential candidate to run and be elected, but the process could be made much easier through ballot reform.

The two-party system has proven largely beneficial. It should not be discarded lightly to be replaced by a multiparty system. One need only look at the chaotic multiparty democracies in Western Europe to know that there are potential pitfalls. Perhaps a brief time-out from the two-party patterns with an effective independent president would create forces for greater bipartisanship in the future. After four or eight years of working together with an independent president in a unity government, it would, one would hope, be possible for us to return to our historic two- party system while avoiding the destructive partisanship of the last few years.

One thing is clear: public impatience with partisan bickering has reached the boiling point. It is feeding the cynicism Americans feel about their own government. It is tragically contributing to the sense of pessimism about the future of our country and the quality of life for our children. We must break the cycle of partisanship or face inevitable decline as a nation.

As Americans work to reawaken the spirit of bipartisanship, we also need to strive to change the tone of public debate. Political talk shows have become shouting matches designed to push emotional hot buttons and drive us further apart. Instead, we desperately need to exchange ideas with one another rationally and courteously. We need to concentrate on the values we share as Americans around which we can unite as a people. Above all, our society would benefit from a healthy infusion of old- fashioned kindness and courtesy. There is a quiet power in kindness. The way we treat each other will help determine the kind of society we will pass on to our children.

From Letter to America by David L. Boren, president of The University of Oklahoma and former U.S. Senator. Courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Press. Reprinted with permission.

Published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 20. Oct. 15, 2012.