The utopian ambitions of the Democratic party’s left wing have attracted a lot of criticism, much of it justified, for lacking any realistic prospects for enactment. But no idea put forth by Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is as harebrained or fantastical as the promise peddled by numerous leading Democrats that they will revive bipartisanship.
Joe Biden is so enamored of his own ability to woo Republicans that he insists upon noting that he has even worked in the past with arch-segregationists. Cory Booker cites bipartisanship as a reason not to eliminate the 60-vote requirement for legislation: “We need to understand that there’s good reason to have a Senate where we are forced to find pragmatic bipartisan solutions. Let’s be a country that operates from that sense of common purpose.”
Colorado governor and presidential candidate John Hickenlooper has even gone so far as to construct a vivid fantasy sequence in which this comes to pass. “When I come into office,” he imagines, “I would go to Mitch McConnell, to his office, and I would sit down with him and say, ‘Now what is the issue again?,’ and we would talk and I would continue to speak back to him — it sounds silly, right? But this works, this is what I did with the suburban mayors, and they hated the city of Denver.”
I suppose if we’re beginning with a “John Hickenlooper has been elected president” premise, we’re already far enough into the realm of fantasy that it doesn’t require that much more imagination to conjure up a public-spirited Mitch McConnell sitting down to negotiate across the aisle in good faith. Maybe in this scenario, McConnell is awed by the fact that Hickenlooper won 538 electoral votes and then quarterbacked the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl championship.
The Obama presidency was an eight-year experiment in the possibility of obtaining Republican support for major initiatives. It is impossible to imagine a more conclusive result. Despite having jacked up the deficit during the entirety of the presidencies both before and after Obama’s, Republicans spent the entire time insisting on massive fiscal austerity despite facing objectively the most favorable conditions for stimulus spending since World War II. Obama’s offer to support John McCain’s cap-and-trade plan and Mitt Romney’s health-care plan drew almost zero Democratic and zero Republican votes, respectively. Republicans wouldn’t even accept a deal to trim Medicare spending in return for tax reform.
McConnell publicly stated his logic at the time: putting the bipartisan imprimatur on Obama’s policies would make the policies popular. More than mere strategy was at work. By waging partisan war against any of Obama’s initiatives, Republicans helped persuade their voters that his ideas — even those with a solid moderate Republican pedigree — were dangerous socialism. And the more fearful Republican voters became, the harder it was for Republicans to negotiate anything with Obama. Republicans were afraid even to be seen talking to the president. At times, when negotiations could not be avoided for bills whose passage was required to avert disaster, Obama would let Biden close the deal just to create the appearance that he hadn’t been part of it.
Republicans have not lost their aversion to compromise. Even though their party now controls the White House, Republican voters are still much more suspicious of compromise than Democrats.
Of course, there’s no harm in Democrats saying they want to make deals with Republicans. It’s a popular idea. The specific issue is that Senate rules allow the minority to filibuster most legislation, and since Democrats have no chance of gaining a supermajority, keeping the filibuster intact means that even if Democrats take back the presidency and the Senate, McConnell will be able to block almost everything they campaign on.
The rules of the Senate do contain a number of loopholes that serve only to underscore their irrationality. Judicial appointments can be confirmed with a majority vote, as can one bill per year related to budget matters. There’s no reason why the system should require compromise on legislation that changes regulations but not legislation that changes tax and spending levels. There’s certainly no reason it should allow a president to seat a Supreme Court Justice to a lifetime appointment with 50 votes but require 60 just to keep the lights on in the federal government. But this insane historical accident is something many Democrats have somehow decided forces them to work together, despite all evidence indicating it does nothing of the sort.
Democrats are going to have to choose between making real changes that can help their constituents and keeping a supermajority requirement in the Senate. There is no more cruelly unrealistic promise than the magical thinking being peddled by the Democratic party’s self-styled realists.