Every Presidential Candidate Talks About Bipartisanship. Here’s Why a History of It Actually Matters.

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Hilary Rodham Clinton receives the 2013 Liberty Medal
Which one can bridge the gap? Photo: William Thomas Cain/2013 Getty Images

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about John Kasich and his quixotic presidential bid. Like many people in the press corps, I like him — or did when I knew him, anyway, back in 1994, when I was a cub reporter on Capitol Hill and he was the newly minted chairman of the House Budget Committee. Unlike most of the charmless dittobots in Newt’s army of GOP revolutionaries, Kasich was energetic, funny, independent-minded; he worked easily with colleagues across the aisle. Among the strange facts I’ve retained about the man all these years later is that he regularly played basketball in the House gym with Democrats, including Ron Dellums, a liberal African-American from Oakland with whom he collaborated on killing funding for the B-2 bomber (They both agreed: It was a waste of money). This little project didn’t go down well with his GOP colleagues, who were generally bullish on all things defense. But it was symbolic of Kasich’s style, and it augured how he’d later be as governor of Ohio, expanding Medicaid in a good-faith effort to enact Obamacare.

Americans profess to want politicians who’ll unite our fractured polity. It’s a staple of most general-election campaign stump speeches (“I’m a uniter, not a divider,” etc.), this notion that a candidate can work across party lines, unpick the gridlock, dance with the other side until the animus melts away. But we seldom elect our politicians with an eye toward whose record is the most collaborative. When evaluating politicians, we don’t often say, “You know why I like that candidate? Because he/she sponsored a bunch of bills with guys on the other side.”

Yet it’s an interesting criterion to think about. LBJ, most obviously and famously, had lots of experience working with members of both parties from his days as Senate majority leader, and he used those redoubtable skills to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare. Reagan spent years contending with Democratic majorities in the California State Legislature while he was governor; one imagines this made it far easier for him to wheel and deal with Tip O’Neill to save Social Security in 1983.

One could argue that those skills are far less valuable now. Indeed, one could argue they’re practically pointless. Even in Reagan’s day, there were old-time Southern Democrats and Rockefeller liberals still floating about, which meant the parties were at least on occasion obliged to work together, because some of their allies were located on the other side of the aisle. There was no 24/7 cable news back then, hellbent on cleaving the nation in two. Newt Gingrich hadn’t yet transformed the Republican Party into a disciplined corps of minutemen who’d brook no dissent within their ranks (Newt’s disgraced successor, Dennis Hastert, took this purity policy to new levels when he declared that no bill would be brought to the floor without a “majority of the majority” supporting it).

Today, in other words, the parties are so polarized that one could quite reasonably argue that no amount of cajoling or diplomacy or cordial relations would pry them from their respective corners. In a universe where Mitch McConnell’s sole objective in life is to make sure that nothing on Obama’s agenda gets through, we’ve reached a pretty sorry pass. It looks like the days of bipartisanship are long past us. 

But I’d also like to think that having the ability to work with the other side could still make a difference in a handful of moments over the course of the presidency — namely, moments of urgent importance, of crisis, of historical import. The problem is, because Barack Obama has been our president for the last six and a half years, we’ll never know for sure. In his first two years, he had a majority in both chambers (a supermajority in the Senate, actually), which ultimately allowed him to pass health-care reform; in the last few months, with control over neither chamber, he’s said “bucket” — see his speech from the most recent White House Correspondents’ Association dinner for details — and signed a series of executive orders on policies nearest and dearest to his heart, like climate change and immigration and Cuba, opposition be damned. (Vox recently ran a very good piece showing how much more effective Congress has been, paradoxically, since Obama’s gone at it alone.)

Neither of those scenarios are when it matters most if a president has a flair for bipartisan wangling, according to Don Ritchie, the former Senate historian.  “The worst case,” he pointed out in a recent email exchange, “is when the two parties each control one house, as they did for the past four years, which is an invitation to gridlock.”

Four years is a long time. And during those four years Obama did precious little to nurture his relationships with those in Congress. He reminds me most of Jimmy Carter in this way — who, as Ritchie wrote, ”said he came to Washington as an outsider and left as an outsider.  He wasn’t famous for making friends in Congress, even among members of his own party. When Reagan came in, his congressional liaison advised him to make personal calls to members. One Georgia Democrat who got a call from Reagan said he had never been called by Carter.”

Back in 2010, I heard similar things from congressional Democrats about Obama, and the trend hasn’t abated until very, very recently, when he had to shore up support for his trade deal with Asia. Obama may have run on a platform of unity and transcendence (Yes We Can!). He may have pointed out, in the 2004 keynote that made him famous, that we have gay friends in the red states and coach little league in the blue. But like Carter, Obama has shown a splendid indifference to Congress, barely cultivating alliances on his own side of the aisle, let alone the other. Maybe this indifference hasn’t had a single consequence for his legacy. But there was one event when it would have been extremely useful — no, morally urgent — to see if cross-party ties had any effect: the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty children died that day. If ever there were a moment to shake a stubborn and cowardly Congress out of its guns-at-all-costs way of doing business, that would have been it. Democrats controlled the Senate. Republicans controlled the House. Maybe there was room to start cajoling, bullying, bringing righteous pressure to bear; maybe there wasn’t. But because Obama had no clout in Congress, we’ll never know, and it’s haunting — particularly in light of the awful carnage, in Charleston especially, that’s happened since. 

And so, using bipartisan skills as a criterion, who emerges from the 2016 field?

Well. Ted Cruz, obviously, is out. People in his own party can barely stand him. Ditto for Trump, for the same reasons, multiplied by a coefficient of ten. Same goes for Scott Walker — Michael Faraday himself couldn’t have imagined as polarized a place as his Wisconsin. But Kasich, check. Marco Rubio, check. Lindsey Graham, check check — his history of bipartisan efforts in the Senate are part of his campaign platform.

And Jeb … a resounding, clanging no. His rhetoric may be softer than his opponents’. But as Florida governor he could barely be bothered to listen to members of his own party, and if a fellow Republican crossed him, he cut him off at the knees. (Like the time Florida State senator Alex Villalobos failed to support him on an education initiative, Bush stripped him of his job as majority leader and banished him to an office the size of a mop closet.)

Yet Hillary, strangely? A yes. She may inspire irrational fury at Fox headquarters; a number of super-PACs are dedicated specifically to her demise. But anyone familiar with her legislative record knows that as a senator she socialized with (and co-sponsored bills) with many members of the GOP — including Lindsey Graham, who was one of the managers of her husband’s impeachment proceedings when he served in the House. Recently, alas, he’s compared her to Kim Jong-un. But given their history of working together — she challenged him to a vodka-drinking contest in Estonia in 2004 — I suspect they’ll both survive it. 

Why Bipartisanship Still Matters for Candidates