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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

By Ezra Klein  |  October 2, 2009; 5:07 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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Truman made the astute observation that "if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." It was meant to be *prescriptive* as well as *descriptive*: no one should come to Washington to make friends. Even the most basic simpleton trying to win a prize on a reality show understands that he's not there to make friends. Why is it that our esteemed Senators are missing that basic point? The legislators should be guided by their interests with an understanding of who is trustworthy and who isn't. They shouldn't be putting their friendships with their colleagues ahead of their constituents.

Posted by: constans | October 2, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

And, to add to that, they shouldn't labor under the delusion that their friendships will trump the interests of the people on the other side of the aisle.

Posted by: constans | October 2, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

On the merits there is no reason most Republicans shouldn't vote for this health care sham. It has middle class people paying for the care of the poor, leaving the rich virtually unscathed. And the "care" is dispersed via the medical-industrial complex off which the rich make fat profits.

Dems are passing a Republican plan, and allowing the Republicans to take credit for voting against it--which you can bet they'll be crowing about at every election from here to eternity.

It's not that Dems are dumb. It's just that politicians of every persuasion have become robots for the corporatocracy.

Posted by: bmull | October 2, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

bmull, you are right about the corporatocracy. Wyden's amendment was the closest thing to a real democratic idea and it was shot down by Democrats! I am wanting my medicare for all now...

Posted by: srw3 | October 2, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Dole never would sign on.

Baker is a different beast. His (and his wife's) type don't exist in the GOP Senate anymore. Collins and Snowe are to the right of both of them. Though it's likely that with more cover from a group of 10 truly "moderate" (in the old sense rather than 21st century version) that Collins and Snowe would be less conservative.

It's a Catch-22. To get elected and stay elected these days, moderate/liberal GOP Senators like Baker and Kassebaum would have to bend strongly to the right in TN and KA respectively. But lord... one can long for the day when someone like Nancy would truly partner with Teddy on this bill rather than water it down like Snowe, and someone like Baker wouldn't work to kill it with a filabuster.

We can complain a lot about how far to the right the "moderate" (i.e. the quite consevative, status quoa and bought off by Big Business) elements of the Dems have gotten in congress. But as much of a shame as that is, the near total loss of the "sane" faction of the GOP.


Posted by: toshiaki | October 2, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

Do you really think this is all about Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus working together to bring us healthcare reform? How naive can you get? It's Max Baucus pretending to work with Chuck Grassley to do the bidding of the health insurance industry and other corporate inerests in the healthcare industry because they are giving him $4 million in campaign contributions this year and Max wants to spin it like he's actually working with anyone else to deliver the goods to his benefactors. How long do you say you've lived in Washington? "Working,..." "Bipartisan" All these terms are euphemisms for doing the bidding of the bag men. Remember those guys who used to walk bags of cash down Pennsylvania Avenue to give to Richard Nixon? Well, they have PACs now, not grocery bags full of cash. The result is the same. Legalized bribery versus illegal bribery. Takes even more accountants, not to walk the cash in a grocery bag but to fill out forms.

Posted by: eyemakeupneeded1 | October 2, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

With all due respect to both former sen majority leaders Frist and Dole, this sounds like nonsense to me. If they were still in the Senate, they'd be facing the same crosscurrents of recriminations from their caucus and massive onslaught of demand for Stalinist like loyalty to the party as the 40 remaining republicans in the Senate do today, and they'd kneel at the altar.

Especially Bill Frist. This is the same guy who as a world class physician, sat on CNN "diagnosing" Terry Schiavo, and went along with this lunatic idea the republicans had of trying to use Congress to force this poor woman to live, maybe the most grotesque thing I've ever seen in politics before.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | October 2, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Do Frist and his family still own all those Hospitals? If so it's easy for him to want HCR, because it will be a windfall for him.

If a Republican says something sane or compassionate, cherchez la moolah.

Posted by: nycguy2 | October 3, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Great post, EK. I continue to be flabbergasted at the stupidity of Dems. Maybe that shows my stupidity.

Posted by: AZProgressive | October 3, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

What Ezra is advocating is we assume Senate is like Bundestag - Senators get into the house based on votes garnered by the Party and they just represent those party votes there even if individually they fought the election...

Well, as a political strategy this prudent approach is correct. But I guess Ezra want to point this out specifically due to the 'heart burning and roller coaster ride' likes of him have gone through in all this process.

In the end when the bill will be passed, like Obama's ill feted Copenhagen trip; all this will be forgotten too. Chuck Grassley may get the primary challenge and may even loose his Senate post too. But collectively we would have moved on.

After all this is Politics.

What I would rather like to point out in Frists's interview is how he warned about difficulties after the law is passed. I guess hands will be full then of Kathleen Sibelius and Perle to implement what Congress passed and Obama signed. I agree with Frist that next political danger lies in the implementation of this reform since it is so complex and very rarely something so fundamental is tried in this country.

And about Senators are 'automaton' - do not look more than what happened in case of Bush's Iraq resolution. Sure, there was no party structure influencing Senators then. But one after the other, all these Dem stalwarts failed to withstand the political pressure and voted where the wind was.

So I would say I am not much concerned about how Senators vote in the end on Party lines. What is of concern in Senate is how few of them exhibit any political courage in the end at all even after election is coming at the interval of 6 years for them. Otherwise Wyden Bill would not have gone to 'dogs' in this case.

And of course the other problem of Senate is 'land representation' instead of 'population representation'. But I guess we are unfortunate in this country to continue to leave with such a broken system in any case.

Posted by: umesh409 | October 3, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

"I'm convinced that we'd all be better off if legislators just assumed that everyone would vote with their party..."

Wouldn't it actually be better if legislators voted the will of their constituents?

I mean ... if a politician is the darling of his party, loved by 80%+ of Americans, and loathed by their constituents ...
they will be, and should be, FIRED.

Legislators owe nothing to Congress, nothing to the President, and owe the LEAST to their party.
They owe EVERYTHING to their constituents.

THEIR constituents. Not someone else's.
Nancy Pelosi owes nothing to the 4th district of New York. They didn't vote for her, they can't fire her. But neither does THEIR legislator owe the people of San Francisco even a moment of breath.

Even if they are Democrat and Progressive.

Legislators owe everything to the people who vote them in office and can decide to terminate their service every 2 or 6 years.

Posted by: chromenhawk | October 4, 2009 8:54 AM | Report abuse

dole, frist and baker are lobbyists

bob dole is now a lobbyist, his opinion is an attempt to put wind behind the proposal his clients find palatable

bill frist is a healthcare stakeholder, his family controls the largest for-profit hospital company

and baker is part of the 7th largest law firm in the us - Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz P.C. (formerly Baker Donelson) is a large U.S. law firm and lobbying group based in Memphis, Tennessee.

Posted by: jamesoneill | October 4, 2009 5:49 PM | Report abuse

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