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What Has Happened to Bipartisanship?

Harold Meyerson has a nice piece today arguing that "bipartisanship" describes something very different than it used to: Rather than liberal Republicans coming together with liberal Democrats, or conservative Democrats coming together with conservative Republicans, the nearly total decimation of the moderates in both parties has meant that a bipartisan deal means a very different sort of bill than it once did: It's not a compromise between people who share principles but potentially disagree on means. It's a compromise between people who don't share principles, which requires a bill that's vague on key areas and weak on others. Quoth Harold:

Problem is, bipartisanship ain't what it used to be, and for one fundamental reason: Republicans ain't what they used to be. It's true that there was considerable Republican congressional support, back in the day, for Social Security and Medicare. But in the '30s, there were progressive Republicans who stood to the left of the Democrats. Nebraska Republican George Norris, who for decades called for establishing public power companies to compete with price-gouging private companies, was the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the '60s, Rockefeller Republicans supported civil rights legislation and Medicare.

Today, no such Republicans exist. In New England and New York, historically the home of GOP moderates, Republicans occupy just two of 51 House seats. Nationally, the party is dominated by Southern neo-Dixiecrats. In their book "Off Center," political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson compared congressional Republicans of different eras and concluded that a Republican House member in 2003 with a voting record that placed him at the median of his party was 73 percent more conservative than the median GOP member of the early '70s.

Max Baucus, then, isn't negotiating universal coverage with the party of Everett Dirksen, in which many members supported Medicare. He's negotiating it with the party of Barry Goldwater, who was dead set against Medicare.

The parties have changed. The archetypal example of bipartisanship -- the reason everyone brings up the name Everett Dirksen -- is the Civil Rights Act. But the reason that Northern Republicans joined with liberal Democrats on that bill was that they, like the Democrats, believed in civil rights. Conservative Democrats didn't.

But the parties have changed. They've realigned. The members tend to share each other's views. A Northern Republican is no longer more like a Democrat than a Southern Democrat is. The modern version of bipartisanship would be a compromise between Democrats who did believe in civil rights and Republicans who did not. The bill's strongest provisions would thus be gutted, and we'd have a Civil Rights Act in name only, but at least it would be bipartisan.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 29, 2009; 11:11 AM ET
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Yea your right. It's all the republicans fault.

Posted by: halbittinger | July 29, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

"the nearly total decimation of the moderates in both parties..."

Now there's a classic case of MSM blame-both-sides doublespeak. Have you ever heard of this funny group called the Blue Dogs? It seems to me like they're kind of a big deal and love embracing the moderate label like no other.

Posted by: Chris_O | July 29, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

What Chris_O said. Conservative Democrats (who most certainly do continue to exist) are working with "moderate" Republicans (a misnomer if there ever was one) to kill health care, or at least water it down to the point of toothlessness.

Posted by: OSheaman | July 29, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

It should also be noted that many important policies -- particularly those resisting civil rights -- were maintained by a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats. Even though Democrats were often in control, the dominant coalition generally included southern Democrats and Republicans, and the later victories of northern Democrats and Republicans were notable for being a break with this tradition. The point about the currently missing middle is, of course, still just as true.

Posted by: Ulium | July 29, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

i didn't realize a republican was the "father of the tva." thought it was fdr who also created the new york power authority.

i've been thinking about public power as an analogy for the public option in health care. public power was created, in part, to provide a yardstick to keep investor-owned utilities honest. ious hate public power, of course, and there continue to be battles. but public power has been a success where it's available.

i wonder how nebraskans support health care reform and the public option given they get all of their electric service from public power?

Posted by: bbebop | July 29, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

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