TOPICS > Politics

Bipartisanship Put to Test in Light of Political Realities

February 17, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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When the stimulus bill was passed with no Republican votes in the House and little GOP support in the Senate, questions arose on the state of bipartisan ties with the new Obama administration. Historians give their perspectives on how bipartisanship fares in times of crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: When the stimulus bill passed Congress last week with no Republican votes in the House and just three in the Senate, the description of President Obama’s victory was offset by much commentary about the lack of bipartisan support.

But what does history say about a president’s ability to get bipartisan votes at momentous times like this? Here to give us some answers are Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, and James Morone, professor of political science at Brown University.

And welcome to you both.

Professor Morone, you wrote an op-ed in the New York Times today in which you say, “Bipartisan dreams have been crashing into political reality since the earliest days of the republic.” Has it really been that bad?

JAMES MORONE, Brown University: Yes, it has been. I think the first thing we have to remember is that there’s no golden age of bipartisanship that we’ve lapsed from. We’ve always muddled through, but often with partisan battles.

Just one quick example. George Washington read the Constitution his first months in office, and he learned that he should get advice from the Senate. So he dropped into the Senate to get advice and consent on a treaty. Well, the senators got so agitated they began to argue about what [inaudible due to technical problems]. They argued, and then they broke into sides, pro-French, pro-English, and Washington cooled his heels and got angrier and angrier and finally walked out with an air of sullen dignity, as one observer put it.

And since that day, the Senate has consented but not given advice on foreign policy, so partisanship all the way back.

Weaker party likely to cooperate

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. And let me -- I'm going to turn to Ellen. Let me just explain to our viewers, we're having a little satellite transmission problem there, which is why a little sound dropped out from Professor Morone.

But, Ellen, how do you think the track record looks for bipartisanship? Is it as bleak as Professor Morone put it?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: Well, I'm sorry to say that it is pretty bleak, although I would draw a contrast to some extent with the, I think, most appropriate historical analogy, and that is the Great Depression and the new deal of Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt enjoyed huge majorities in Congress, but he still managed to garner some Republican support for the most important pieces of New Deal legislation.

And I think this happened not because he took an Obama-like approach of trying to reach out across the aisle, but because of the utter bankruptcy of the Republican position -- I don't mean that literally, figuratively -- by 1933, when the national feeling was that the Hoover administration had really allowed the economy to bottom out and not really stepped forward to address the worst ravages of the Great Depression.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Morone, when -- when it's worked at other times, why has it been -- has it been, as with the New Deal, that the political difficulties of the opposing party were so great that they went along with the president or has there been examples where the president met them halfway?

JAMES MORONE: That's a good question. And let me just say, I completely agree with Ellen.

In 1933 Roosevelt's Emergency Bank bill passed Congress in eight hours. That's the speed of light by congressional standards. But by 1935, as she implied, by 1935, Roosevelt got one vote for Social Security from the Republicans in the original vote to send it back, so that partisanship even in the Great Depression lasted only a very short while.

Look, to get directly to your question, the dirty, rotten secret of bipartisanship is the more likely a party has -- the better chance they have of winning, the less likely they are to be bipartisan. So the closer the competition between parties, the harder it is to get bipartisan consensus.

More cooperation on foreign policy

MARGARET WARNER: By competition, do you mean how close the number of votes or the opposing party's view of what its own political prospects are?

JAMES MORONE: The latter, exactly, how close they were to winning. So that, in a period where one party is defeated or scared or it doesn't really think it has very much of a chance, they're very likely to go along for sheer fear of survival among the party members. But when they think they've got a shot, then they're more likely to be partisan.

One quick example. I remember interviewing a very gentle-spirited congressman in 1993, a Republican, and he complained to me that he'd always played basketball with the Democrats every Tuesday night. The new leadership, Newt Gingrich, came up to in 1993 and said, "No more of that." Both sides were feeling that way.

But, no, you can criticize Bill Clinton and say, well he was really tough, but he had an agenda. He was going to win Congress for the first time [inaudible due to technical problems] and, indeed, he did.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me switch back to Ellen. Ellen, let's look at foreign policy, because one of the old at least nostrums, beliefs is that bipartisanship has been more frequently achieved on big foreign policy issues. Do you think that's true?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, it's certainly true in situations where Congress is -- the rare situations, I might add, when Congress has actually undertaken a declaration of war. So in World War I and World War II, there was overwhelming unanimity around those declarations of war.

In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave Lyndon Johnson the power to expand our commitment in Vietnam was also a rout for anyone who opposed the war at that point. There was very little opposition in the Congress.

And the Afghan war, the war in Iraq, also, you see both parties coming together around -- certainly, around the wars. There has been great unanimity of opinion when these moments of crisis occur.

In past, more inner-party division

MARGARET WARNER: How about also after World War II, when it came time to get the Marshall Plan passed? Wasn't that another example?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Truman was very effective in trying to garner Republican support. And that was true of the National Security Act, as well, which put in place, really, the modern apparatus overseeing foreign policy.

But one of the things that I think we need to distinguish here is to recognize that what has become more extreme in our own time is this unanimity of opinion within parties. That is, often presidents prior to our current day had to deal with divisions within their party.

There were liberal Republicans who were supporting some of the New Deal efforts and some of the Great Society initiatives. And there were conservative Democrats who were opposing some of these initiatives, as well.

Coming together on Civil Rights Act

MARGARET WARNER: A brief final comment from you, Professor Morone, on that point, that, from the '30s to the '60s, say, each party was so ideologically fractious within itself that you could get alliances across the aisle.

JAMES MORONE: Yes, that's absolutely true. If you think of the Democrats, they were divided between southern Democrats, who believed in segregation, and northern liberals, so it was a very fractured party in that period.

There's another thing that adds to this same effect. Not only do we have parties that are more ideologically similar within themselves, but the institutions themselves don't have the same glue that they used to have.

There were many people in Congress who spent day in and day out in the chambers themselves. Today, it's a Tuesday-to-Thursday workweek because congressmen have to go back home every weekend. They're always running, so they're always running for re-election, so that also makes things more difficult.

Let me make one more point, though. It's not that there's never bipartisanship. There have been some pretty glorious moments. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, after a very long filibuster, Republicans, led by Everett Dirksen of Illinois, came over, thanks in part to Lyndon Johnson's persuasiveness, but in part to an issue they felt was a moral issue.

They came over and joined the Democrats and broke the -- joined the northern Democrats and broke that filibuster, so there's an actually quite glorious moment, a moral moment in American politics in the middle of the 1960s that were a very partisan era.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: It led Lyndon Johnson, however, to observe that he thought the Democratic Party had probably lost the South from that moment forward.

MARGARET WARNER: And I'm afraid we're losing our time. But, James Morone and Ellen Fitzpatrick, thank you both very much.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you, Margaret.

JAMES MORONE: Thank you, Margaret. Bye-bye.