Keys to Bipartisanship

In his gracious concession speech, Vice President Al Gore showed himself to be a better loser than a campaigner. [W]hat remains of partisan rancor now must be put aside, he told the nation. Now, the political struggle is over and we turn again to the unending struggle for the common good of all Americans and for those multitudes around the world who look to us for leadership in the cause of freedom.

Likewise, President-elect George W. Bush said, After a difficult election, we must put politics behind us and work together to make the promise of America available for every one of our citizens. Our nation must rise above partisan politics, he said. Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements.... Together, guided by a spirit of common sense, common courtesy and common goals, we can unite and inspire the American citizens.

Similar exhortations came from a wide spectrum of politicians and opinion leaders. But one need not be a cynic to ask how long this bipartisan spirit will last. Already, some of the calls for bipartisanship have partisan spins: bipartisanship means the other party must cooperate with our party’s plans.

The presidential election, although bitterly fought, in some ways papered over partisan differences as each candidate fought to present himself as the standard-bearer for the American middleas reported to them by their pollsters. On the other hand, the Congressional parties have never been more ideologically divided.

A superficial look at Congress since the Second World War shows the Democrats in the majority most of the time. However, critics during this period complained that the Democratic Party was a hodgepodge of views that stood for nothing because it was made up of white Southern Protestant conservatives and Northern Catholic and Jewish liberals. Critics wanted American parties to be more like the ideologically driven European political parties. Only briefly after the 1964 election did the liberal Democrats have a working majority. For most of the postwar period, the conservative Southern Democrats were the key players in Congress. Because of the seniority system, they controlled key committees. And when these Southern Democrats voted with Republicans, as they frequently did on controversial issues, this bipartisan conservative coalition ruled. Rarely did Republicans join Northern Democrats against Southern Democrats except for a few civil rights bills.

All of this began to change with the civil rights movement. White Southerners felt betrayed by the national Democratic Party’s support for integration and civil rights. Richard Nixon understood and exploited this alienation and began the process that turned Southern Democrats into Republicans. This conversion was sped by liberal Federal courts that, in the hopes of increasing black representation in Congress, redrew Southern Congressional districts giving them distinct black and white majorities that elected liberal black Democrats and conservative white Republicans.

The conservative Southern Democrat has become an endangered species in Congress, while the Republican Party has replaced the bipartisan conservative coalition. As a result, the Republican contingent in Congress has become more conservative and the Democratic contingent more liberal, and their elected leaders have reflected this. Today, the parties are more like European parties, more ideologically pure, than the American parties of the past. Bruising fights over two impeachments, Supreme Court nominations and abortion have added additional wounds that have still not healed.

With Southern whites and rural voters securely in the Republican camp, and minorities and urban voters securely in the Democratic camp, the suburbs have become the swing districts in presidential and Congressional politics. Suburban Catholics (who are wealthier and therefore pay more taxes than their working-class parents) were the constituency that abandoned Gore in sufficient numbers to cause his defeat. The anti-Catholic rhetoric of pro-choice groups and teachers unions who supported Gore hurt him. In the next Congress, representatives from the suburbs will be key to bipartisanship.

In his address to the nation, President-elect Bush set out an agenda that he hopes will garner bipartisan support: improving public schools, saving Social Security, strengthening Medicare and offering prescription drug coverage to all seniors, a fair and fiscally responsible tax cut and a bipartisan foreign and military policy. The details will be difficult to hammer out, but if he succeeds, he will have a memorable presidency.

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