Is Bipartisanship Really Possible?

One political idea that gets broad bipartisan support these days is, well, bipartisanship. But is it really practical — or even possible? Host Guy Raz speaks with retiring Republican Sen. George Voinovich and firebrand Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, and gets a historical perspective on bipartisanship from Harvard historian Sam Haselby

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

There is one word in politics that is seldom controversial. It's a word that has wide bipartisan appeal and the word, well, it's bipartisanship.

Unidentified Man: Bipartisanship is a means by which we obtain a good bill.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): It is in our interests to work and to offer to be bipartisan, which we have.

Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): There's no question that things need to be better, more bipartisanship.

RAZ: The voices of some members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Now, nearly every politician professes to support the idea of bipartisanship, and virtually, all of them believe it's a good thing, including President Obama, who talked a lot about it in his State of the Union address this past week and in a meeting with House Republicans on Friday. He said bipartisanship is what the voters expect.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't think they want more gridlock. I don't think they want more partisanship. I don't think they want more obstruction.

RAZ: And that's actually true according to polls. Voters say they want lawmakers to work together. But does it result in better policy?

We begin the hour with a look at the word, its history and whether the atmosphere in Washington is truly more partisanship today than it's been in the past. Now, one member of Congress who laments the way business is done in Washington these days is Ohio Senator George Voinovich. He's a Republican who's retiring this year. And we sat down with him to ask why he believes things have become so divided.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): With Harry Reid in charge and Mitch McConnell, I think many people on the Republican side feel that not cooperating may be a political advantage in terms of electing more members of the Senate, and Majority Leader Reid's part may be that not cooperating may be, you know, helpful to them because they have to reach out to their base.

RAZ: You actually criticized your party's leader, Mitch McConnell - Senator McConnell - for opposing President Obama's plan to form a bipartisanship panel to work on cutting entitlement spending. And I want to read a quote from a speech you gave on the floor of the Senate. You said, if the public perceives that the Republican Party is playing political games and whose main goal in life is to see how many more Republicans we can get in the Senate and the House, then I think it's going to backfire.

Do you think you're in a minority opinion on this nowadays?

Sen. VOINOVICH: Well, I suspect that maybe I am. I think frankly that how we behave between now and November is going to have a great deal to do with whether or not we're going to be successful and I think if the American people think that the Republican Party is the party of no and that we're unwilling, you know, to work with the president - and we had a chance to pass a bipartisanship commission and it was the best.

In fact, I think the president was convinced it was the best thing to get the job done. Now, that failed. And so, now, the president's talking about creating an executive order that would create a commission. And several of my friends in the Senate have said, you know, I'm not going to participate in that. It's just going to be a cover. And, you know, my attitude is this, is that before you take that position, listen to what the president has.

And if it makes sense, you know, you had a chance to create your own commission and you decided that you didn't want to do it, I think you ought to give the president the opportunity to come back and say, here's what I'd like to do. And if it looks like it's a legitimate effort on his part, we should participate in it. And if we don't, I think it makes us really look like we don't really care about that.

RAZ: Hmm. Do you believe that President Obama is a partisan leader, or do you think that he is earnest in his desire to work with the other party?

Sen. VOINOVICH: I think that he now realizes more than ever before he needs to be working with the Republicans. The problem that we've got is we've got a lot of people in the Republican conference who frankly just don't want to cooperate.

RAZ: Hmm.

Sen. VOINOVICH: And I'm sure that Nancy Pelosi has got the same thing with her people.

RAZ: Senator Voinovich, you have been criticized in the past by right-wing bloggers for being insufficiently conservative because of some of the independent, more independent positions you've taken, for example, with respect to the Iraq War. How do you think these kinds of critiques influence the political environment in general?

Sen. VOINOVICH: I took on President Bush back in 2003 with Olympia Snowe when they wanted to reduce taxes by...

RAZ: Yes.

Sen. VOINOVICH: ...almost $1 trillion.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Sen. VOINOVICH: And then the House got it at 757. And Olympia and I held the fort. The president came into Ohio after that and kind of was critical of me and then - what do you call it - this Growth - Club for Growth started running ads against me and so forth. But you know what? If you do what you think is right and you explain why it is that you're doing what you're doing, then basically I think people respect you.

Now, one other problem that we've got is the issue of this new wave of - what is it - MSNBC and Fox, and I don't know who else out there that, you know, they really try to insight people to get them to build their audience so that, you know, if you come out with a new idea, you better be careful that MSNBC or Fox News doesn't define what that issue is, because before you know it, that's the way people feel about it. So...

RAZ: And that has played into the intensified partisanship?

Sen. VOINOVICH: I do think so, because what's happening is, is I see some of my colleagues, you know, playing into that. I was just talking to one of the Democrats the other day about it and I said, you know, the Senate has really changed since I've come here in 1999. And he said, well, I've been here for over 30 years, and he said it certainly isn't the place that it was when I came here. There was a lot more camaraderie, senators spent more time in Washington.

Today, senators have two or three committees. They run around so busy raising money and the rest of it that we don't have a chance to spend that much time together to get to know each other.

RAZ: That's George Voinovich. He's a Republican senator from Ohio and he's retiring at the end of this year after two terms.

Senator Voinovich, thank you so much.

Sen. VOINOVICH: Thank you very much, Guy.

RAZ: Now, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat, has become a kind of lightning rod for critics on the right. He's an unabashed, unapologetic partisan. And he believes there's very little incentive in trying to find common ground anymore.

Representative ALAN GRAYSON (Democrat, Florida): I think it's futile. It's like asking somebody on a date 26 times. The answer is no. It's just not going to happen. And I think that particularly in the past 14 months, the term bipartisanship has been exploited by the Republicans in order to put a veil over the fact they're simply not cooperating.

RAZ: But how could you actually get things done without bipartisan participation, particularly now that Democrats don't have 60 votes in the Senate?

Rep. GRAYSON: Well, I think that's an illusion. I don't understand why anybody thinks that government grinds to a halt simply because we don't have 60 votes in the Senate. The Congress has existed now for 222 years. Do you know how many of those years there's been a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate? Any idea?

RAZ: Fourteen years.

Rep. GRAYSON: That's exactly right, 14 out of 222. And somehow, for the remaining 208 years, the government managed to function.

RAZ: Do you think that it is all the Republicans fault? I mean, couldn't there be a legitimate case to be made that Democrats have also played a role in this partisan divide?

Rep. GRAYSON: No. The president has held out his hand again and again to the Republicans and they spat on it. You cannot force someone to be bipartisan. The Republicans aren't interested. That's the fact of the matter. And now, it's time to move on. We have to move on because there's no other way to solve our problems.

RAZ: I mean, you say that there's no other way to solve the problems, but I mean - but what if the result is gridlock? I mean, how do you expect the voters in the United States to accept that? And surely, they would blame the Democrats for that.

Rep. GRAYSON: What do you mean surely? Are you a Republican?

RAZ: Well, I mean, the Democrats are in control of Congress. If nothing gets done, who's going to be held accountable?

Rep. GRAYSON: Well, I think that people are smart enough to see that the fundamental reason why nothing gets done is that the Republicans vote against everything, whether it's in the House or the Senate. I don't understand why the voters would think it's the Democrats fault.

RAZ: Well, the argument that Republicans, of course, are making is that they didn't have any input; they weren't given a seat at the table.

Rep. GRAYSON: I mean, you know, those are just - that's a slogan. That's a meaningless cliche. The president said over and over again, tell me what it is that you think that we should do; and they have no plan. If there were an alternative, the president would be open to it. He said that over and over again, and so would I.

RAZ: Well, there certainly seems to be bipartisan agreement that the other side is causing the problems.

Rep. GRAYSON: Well, I can imagine another system. I think that all of us have lived through other times in America when we didn't have a stubborn minority, determined to destroy the opportunity of Americans to move ahead. There was a tradition for many years among Republicans of rationality, and now even that seems to be slipping away.

They've all become devotees of Glenn Beck. And, you know, if their view of how to move the country forward is to implement some form of Hannity insanity, then I think that the people eventually will understand that that's not viable.

RAZ: That's Alan Grayson. He's a Democratic congressman from Florida.

Congressman Grayson, thank you so much.

Rep. GRAYSON: Than you, too.

RAZ: Now it turns out the whole idea of appealing to bipartisanship isn't really rooted in American political tradition.

Dr. SAM HASELBY (Historian, Harvard University): It started in the early '70s.

RAZ: that's Harvard historian Sam Haselby.

Dr. HASELBY: It was conservative Southern Democrats under the Nixon administration who were pro-Vietnam War and anti-Civil Rights, and they were looking for a way to represent those positions which were very unpopular in their party - in the Democratic Party at the time. And they started talking a lot about bipartisanship.

RAZ: And Richard Nixon adopted the idea. In his 1972 State of the Union address, Nixon used the word four times when he called on Congress to pass his agenda.

President RICHARD NIXON: ...which should and must be the subject of bipartisan action by this Congress, in the interest of the country in 1972.

RAZ: Sam Haselby says some of the biggest changes in American history: Social Security, Medicare, changes to the tax code, these were all pushed through in a partisan way. And even earlier...

Dr. HASELBY: The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were highly partisan measures, entirely partisan measures. The Republican Party passed these pieces of legislation without a single Democratic vote.

RAZ: And those amendments, of course, codified and ended slavery, created federal citizenship, and expanded voting rights.

But now, with health care overhaul teetering on the brink, can any part of it be saved without some bipartisan support? Some Democrats say yes, and they point they point to an obscure procedure known as reconciliation. It's a parliamentary move that cuts off debate and ends the filibuster. But as we will find out, it's not so easy and there are plenty of restrictions.

That's story coming up when the program continues.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.