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No, we can't all just get along

The bipartisanship of the past was a fluke; wishing for its return is a pipe dream.

September 23, 2007|Jonathan Chait | Jonathan Chait, who writes the TRB column for the New Republic, is the author of "The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics."

Seven years of the Bush administration has left the public with a strong desire for unity. Barack Obama has made unifying the country his central campaign theme. Fred Thompson has made unity one of his three campaign themes. Mitt Romney says he thinks most Americans are "appalled" at the country's current disunity. And, of course, the third-party group "Unity '08" has . . . well, that one goes without saying.

All these people who crave bipartisanship and agreement are right about one thing: There used to be a time when members of both parties worked together to do the public's business. And I'm sure their desire to bring that time back is genuine. Unfortunately, it will never work.

The problem is not that bipartisanship has disappeared in Washington because politicians are meaner than they used to be. Rather, there are deep-seated reasons why the parties don't work together anymore.

First, bipartisanship was something of a historic fluke. The role of a political party is to distinguish differing ideas about how to govern a country. But for much of American history, our two major parties failed to do that. Like today, you had some liberals in the Democratic Party and some conservatives in the Republican Party. But white Southern conservatives were staunch Democrats (because the GOP had been the party of Abraham Lincoln) and many progressives were in the Republican Party. Bipartisanship was natural because you could find conservatives and liberals in both parties.

Second, especially in the 30 years or so after World War II, mainstream conservatives and liberals did not disagree all that much about the role of government in public life. Republican presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford accepted labor unions, social insurance and other aspects of the New Deal. To the extent the two sides disagreed, they disagreed over degrees of change. Republicans tended to be more worried about deficits and inflation, Democrats more worried about full employment and the poor.

This left ample room for compromise. Eisenhower was willing to expand Social Security. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. The generation that lived through this era believed that it was natural for the two parties to work together.

The problem with this arrangement is that it left the conservative movement out in the cold. Genuine ideological conservatives -- the people associated first with National Review, then the Barry Goldwater movement and then the "New Right" of the 1970s -- did not accept the New Deal. They considered big government fundamentally illegitimate. To them, Republicans such as Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford were only barely better than Democrats. These conservatives didn't want to slow down the growth of government, they wanted to roll it back dramatically.

Why, then, did the culture of bipartisanship disappear? Well, first, the two parties sorted themselves out ideologically, with white Southern conservatives joining the GOP and Northern liberals joining the Democratic Party. And second, the conservative movement took over the Republican Party. The old, moderate GOP establishment is long dead, having breathed its last gasps in George H.W. Bush's administration.

And so the two parties don't work together now because there's no reason for them to do so.

Unfortunately, the voters and many Washington elites don't understand why bipartisanship died, so they keep insisting it must return. They demand that the two parties "work together" to "solve problems" -- which is great, except that they don't agree on what the problems are or what acceptable solutions might be.

The most commonly cited problems are the deficit, healthcare and global warming. I'd like to see those things addressed too. If the Republican Party of 40 years ago still existed, the two parties could solve those problems. But any bipartisan solution to those problems would have to involve at least some new taxes and regulation, and most Republicans find that unacceptable.

It might sound like I'm blaming Republicans for the breakdown of bipartisanship, but I'm really not. They have every right to their principles. The basic partisan consensus in Washington was one they didn't subscribe to, and they had no reason to play along with it.

But today there's a deep-rooted ideological gulf between the two parties that can't just be papered over. It would be nice if a new president could come and work with both sides to solve our problems. Unfortunately, you can only do that if the two sides agree on what the problems are.

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