Edward Brooke and the irreproducible age of bipartisanship

Edward W. Brooke was the first African-American attorney general in the U.S., then the first popularly elected U.S. senator.

While New Yorkers were still mourning former Gov. Mario Cuomo, a political giant who “kept Catholic social teaching in civic play” (see Kevin Clarke’s “Mario Cuomo and a Changing of the Guard”), Bay Staters learned of the death of Edward W. Brooke, the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate since the 1870s. Brooke represented Massachusetts from 1967 through 1979 as a Republican. No member of his party has won a full term in famously blue Massachusetts since he lost his second bid for re-election.

Brooke’s obituaries emphasize his membership in an extinct club: liberal Republicans who often worked with colleagues across the aisle and disassociated themselves from hard-liners in their own party. The Boston Globenotes that Brooke once “conspicuously avoided a luncheon in [Ronald] Reagan’s honor,” and he was among the first elected Republicans to call for President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.


His refusal to embrace National Review conservatism did not lead to his purge from the party as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). In 1966, newly elected California Gov. Reagan hailed Brooke’s win in Massachusetts as proof that the GOP was not exploiting opposition to civil rights legislation, saying, “I find it very difficult to assess the Republican victory on the basis of white backlash when it’s the Republican Party that elected the first Negro to the United States Senate in almost a hundred years.”

Brooke also earned a mention in former Nixon speechwriter William Safire’s Political Dictionary, in the definition of the term “dream ticket,” or “a combination of candidates with unbeatable appeal, simultaneously unifying the party’s divergent wings.” The first example given: Reagan/Brooke. (Safire also warns that such the wish for a dream team “rarely comes true.”)

I’m reminded that my father, an Irish Catholic Democrat who has stuck with his party from Stevenson through Obama, supported Brooke even as he lost his seat in 1978, after making false financial statements in the process of a divorce. My father was not particularly concerned with saving the seat of the Senate’s only African-American, or with strengthening the causes of bipartisanship or centrism. He explained to me—I was confused by his going against the Democrat, Paul Tsongas—that Brooke had been effective in winning military contracts for the General Electric aircraft engine plant in Lynn, where my father worked. (A collection of photos from Brooke’s life at WBUR includes a campaign stop “outside a factory” in Lynn.)

Bringing home the bacon—or “slopping the hogs,” as former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank once put it—was a big reason that the age of bipartisanship lasted as long as it did. When there wasn’t much ideological difference between candidates, as when both parties’ nominees in Massachusetts were well to the left of both parties’ nominees in Georgia, it made perfect sense for voters to choose the one who seemed better at grabbing federal funds. Even after the election of Ronald Reagan began the decades-long process of polarizing the two parties, a relative conservative like New York Republican Alfonse D’Amato (“Senator Pothole”) could get reelected in a blue state by emphasizing constituent services—at least until he was finally ousted in 1998.

Bringing federal money to a state or congressional district is now considered an unsavory business, and even the euphemism “earmark” has an almost-criminal connotation. Members of Congress still advocate for their constituents (and, more likely, their contributors), but pork is no longer an effective way to win voters from the other party.

Another change is illustrated by Brooke’s signature issue, affordable housing. He fought for the open-housing amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and a year later authored the “Brooke Amendment” that limits the rent in public housing to 25 percent of a family’s income. The Brooke Amendment may not be the best or the most durable solution to families priced out of housing, but it was an attempt to reduce hardship, and once that was a good strategy to attract voters across party lines.

Now we have little expectation of government doing anything to improve society. Bipartisanship and moderation are almost always invoked by proponents of a smaller, less activist government. A “moderate” Republican is one who’s OK with same-sex marriage, and maybe the legalization of marijuana, but still calls for drastic spending cuts and opposes any government effort to provide universal health insurance. A moderate Democrat is uncompromising on foreign policy and so-called social issues but open to cuts in Medicaid and Social Security benefits, and he or she happily takes money from Wall Street in exchange for loosening financial regulations.

There are valid arguments for a government that does less, but this is not an atmosphere that encourages voters to cross party lines—or helps voter turnout in general. For better or worse, we’re not likely to see another Ed Brooke for a long time.

Image from the Massachusetts Historical Society, courtesy of Boston University.

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Joshua DeCuir
3 years 4 months ago
The biggest reason that bipartisan "deals" that bring home the bacon are largely non-existent anymore is that the economic conditions of the post-war years are dead & gone rather than some nasty streak of libertarianism currently plaguing the country.


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