Why Bipartisanship Always Comes Too Late
Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told Time's Karen Tumulty that if he were still in the Senate, he'd vote for the health-care reform bill being passed out of the Finance Committee. "As leader, I would take heat for it." he said. "That's what leadership is all about."
That puts Bill Frist on the side of health-care reform. His predecessors, Bob Dole and Howard Baker, have both signed onto a more comprehensive, more expensive proposal. And I don't buy it.
I shouldn't be churlish. I should take allies where they can be found. But I think these sorts of after-the-fact admissions obscure much more than they illuminate. As the Gang of Six proved, there are all sorts of politicians willing to say they'll buck overwhelming partisan pressure and take politically treacherous risks in service of progress on America's toughest issues. There just aren't many willing to do it. When legislators speak, they frequently speak as individuals. When they vote, they virtually always vote as servants of larger structural forces.
The people most fooled by this two-step, in my experience, are other legislators. Read Kent Conrad talk about the Gang of Six in this interview. He still seems baffled by the collapse of the talks. He still seems to think that agreement was just around the corner, at least inside that room. And I'm sure, inside that room, that was correct. "But that [room was] outside the political discussions," he ruefully admitted.
Senators know each other. They're friendly with each other. They trust each other. So when Chuck Grassley told Max Baucus he wanted to work with him, Baucus trusted that Grassley would, and could, do so. After all, this was Chuck we were talking about! They're friends! When that eventually failed, a lot of excuses got made. Obama didn't give them enough time. The politics changed. Liberals just wouldn't compromise. But the fundamental reality was that senators act like individuals, but on big issues, they tend to vote like automatons. They never think they'll do that in advance, and they always come up with rationalizations for why they did it in that specific case. But that's what happens.
I'm convinced that we'd all be better off if legislators just assumed that everyone would vote with their party, and anyone who was willing to exchange a firm promise of support for a discrete set of changes could then come forward to make that deal. It would be sacrificing an important ideal, but the model would better fit the reality. And we'd waste a lot less time.
Photo credit: By Melina Mara —The Washington Post
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