By Norm Ornstein
“Can we all get along?”
That famous plea, uttered by Rodney King in the aftermath of his infamous pounding by police, is a persistent theme in a Washington beset by bickering, demonizing, and poisonous relationships. Recently, The Washington Post had two columns, by Dana Milbank and Ruth Marcus, that were interesting takes on the meme. Milbank drew on the Discovery Channel pairing of Republican Senator Jeff Flake and Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich on a barren Pacific Island, where survival depended on teamwork, trust, and cooperation. Flake said of Senate party leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, “If they would spend six days and nights on an island, we could move legislation forward here.” He added slyly, “And if they didn’t survive, we could still move legislation here.” Heinrich underscored the importance of a lack of trust among lawmakers, the loss of a glue that worked in an earlier era to cement agreement among individuals with very different philosophies.
Marcus took a different approach, noting two highly promising bipartisan approaches to pressing issues—infrastructure repair and controlling health care costs. These proposals were put together with a pragmatic eye toward both transcending standard ideology and finding sweet spots that would attract partisans from both sides.
Milbank also mentioned the persistent efforts of No Labels to create bridges by forming a Problem-Solving Caucus and bringing lawmakers of both parties together for dinners that are a bit like Match.com, pairing ideological opposites to find common ground. They already helped create a broad bipartisan cosponsorship for an infrastructure bank proposed by moderate Democratic Representative John Delaney of Maryland.
I yield to no one in my desire to have Congress and Washington work, to achieve the framers’ sense of how policymaking in our constitutional institutions should happen—through debate, deliberation, and coalition building via compromise and finding common ground. I strongly supported the “civility retreats” that Congress held for several years beginning in the late 1990s. I pushed hard for a new congressional schedule that would be three weeks in Washington, one back home every month, with an additional set of incentives to have lawmakers bring their families to Washington to encourage more social interaction across party lines, which should lead to less demonizing. The lack of interpersonal relationships or ties, among and between the party leaders but also among the rank-and-file, especially in the House, does in fact encourage bad behavior, name-calling, and worse.
But we also need a reality check here. The bigger problems with gridlock and dysfunction are not because individuals do not trust each other; they are because of larger factors in the political process and the culture.
What are those larger factors? Let’s start with the rise and dominance of the permanent campaign. For decades after I came to Washington, there was a clear separation between a season of campaigning and a season of governing—a move from a zero-sum game to an additive one. There were norms that reinforced the seasons—members did not actively campaign against their colleagues from other districts or states, and they would never go to another district or state to campaign against them. Those on the other side of the aisle were adversaries, not enemies.
But starting in the late 1970s—maybe with the sharply ideological independent campaign in 1978—that began to shift. Campaign consultants and pollsters who used to melt away from Washington after elections to reemerge 18 months later began to stick around for the full two-year cycle. Their emphasis, whispering in their clients’ ears, was not on big national issues but on the partisan-driven “wedge” issues that could bring political advantage or create a headache unless neutralized. Fundraising ramped up, and lawmakers spending more time on the phone and pooling efforts against a broader threat to their well-being.
With the Republican takeover in the Senate in 1980 for the first time in 26 years, and then with the Gingrich-driven GOP takeover in the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, we saw a sea change in politics that amplified the impact of the permanent campaign. From then on, every election has had within it the seeds of a turnover in party control in one chamber or the other, or both. The stakes became much higher—and were made higher yet by the increasing ideological polarization of the parties in both houses. Suddenly, working with those on the other side of the aisle had potentially larger consequences—it might make voters feel better about the other party, and might reward them for popular policies or just for working together.
Now add in two more powerful disincentives to working together for the common good. What drove the huge GOP victory in 1994? The broad sense that Washington wasn’t working—driven by the Gingrich-led Republican unity against any significant initiative from President Clinton. This dragged down approval of both parties in Washington, but for a public that believes presidents drive action and should just make things happen, it worked especially well against the president’s party. A strategy of gridlock, of thwarting ballyhooed White House signing ceremonies while working hard to demonize the president, brought benefits. The same approach, doubled down in 2009-2010 with the twist of delegitimizing any policies enacted by one party, worked even better in the 2010 midterms.
Demonization and delegitimization were reinforced and amplified by the rise of sharply tribal and partisan media and related social media, and by the flood of outside money that has been expanded since Citizens United. The more effective the demonization of the president and the delegitimization of his policies, the tougher it is for members of the other party to back policies that the president and his partisans support.
Ideology is a factor; the fact that the two parties have become more polarized does make it harder. But as I have pointed out before, the cases of Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch demonstrate that problem-solving is not monopolized by centrists. If there is a will to find solutions, ideological bridges can be found. But the fact is that the mix of incentives and disincentives in politics now works powerfully against cooperation across party lines and against getting together to solve big national problems. When bipartisan cooperation occurs—and it has, from the Senate’s impressive coalition in support of immigration reform to the deal between McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden on the debt ceiling to the deal between Patty Murray and Paul Ryan on spending—it is when both parties and their leaders see it in their mutual interest to avoid deadlock or confrontation. But that is rare and getting rarer.
Of course it is true that McConnell and Reid do not have a warm personal relationship, nor do they see eye to eye on most issues. That did not stop the deal-making on immigration. But more important to the failures of the Senate to act on most matters before or since, and the repeated and unprecedented use of the filibuster as a tactic of obstruction, has been not ideology or personal trust but McConnell’s ruthless pragmatism—blocking action in the Senate could combine with systematic demonization of the other side and reap big short-term political gain for his party. The nature of the permanent campaign, tribal politics in the House, and the political consequences for leaders if they defy the base is what did in Eric Cantor. It is ironic that a leader who personified the tactical use of obstruction and hyper-partisanship got skewered when he acted pragmatically for his party’s well-being to reopen the government, and toyed with the idea of acting on immigration for his party’s self-interest.
Jeff Flake has been one of my favorite members of Congress since his days in the House. He is firmly at the right edge of the spectrum, with strong beliefs on limiting government spending that often caused his own party leaders, happy to earmark and logroll, to come close to pulling their hair out. But he is also very much a problem-solver, working to find ways to deal with persistent national problems, including immigration, which causes him plenty of grief back home in Arizona. But he is not the only one on his side of the aisle who yearns to find bipartisan approaches to big national problems; there are plenty of Democrats who want very much to do the same.
The fact is that Flake has good and warm relations with plenty of his Democratic colleagues. The Senate has lots of friendships and relationships across the aisle. But those friendships have not stopped the unity on filibusters or brought more amendments to the floor on bills. As for No Labels, the problem solvers in its caucus get along great at dinner—and then go back and vote reflexively with their tribes. Maybe the Delaney bill, or the counterpart highlighted by Ruth Marcus, would pass impressively if brought to the floor. But in the broader environment, with the imperatives of the permanent campaign, there is little chance that will happen. Trust and relationships are a necessary condition for functional government. But sadly, they are far from sufficient to break out of this morass.