Establishing Bipartisanship Is a Big Challenge

A bipartisan group of lawmakers at a news conference. i i

U.S. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, (D-IL) speaks as (L-R) Sen. Olympia Snow (R-ME), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) and Rep. Marion Berry (D-AR) listen at a news conference to introduce drug prescription legislation. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A bipartisan group of lawmakers at a news conference.

U.S. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, (D-IL) speaks as (L-R) Sen. Olympia Snow (R-ME), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) and Rep. Marion Berry (D-AR) listen at a news conference to introduce drug prescription legislation.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gives State of the State speech. i i

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calls himself a "post-partisan" politician. Rich Pedroncelli/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Rich Pedroncelli/AFP/Getty Images
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gives State of the State speech.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calls himself a "post-partisan" politician.

Rich Pedroncelli/AFP/Getty Images

In the world of Washington, nothing concentrates the mind like an election that changes the control of Congress. Last November, Americans voted against an unpopular war, congressional corruption and a system that seemed unable to solve the country's problems. Politicians from both parties said they got the message.

But of course, being for bipartisanship is like being for peace and prosperity. Who would disagree? Making it happen is much harder.

While leaders in Washington were thinking about how to bridge their divides — or even if they really wanted to — a group of academics was reporting on their own experiment in collaboration.

David Brady, the deputy director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, joined forces with the Brookings Institution on a book called Red and Blue Nation.

"The idea was that if two institutions — one on the moderate left and one on the moderate right — were to get together on an issue like polarization, that we would be able to come up with a more accurate picture," Brady says.

What they found was the the red and blue divisions are sharper in Washington than anywhere else.

"Well, Congress is polarized in the present era by any sort of way you want to measure it — percentage of time Democrats vote against Republicans, level of party voting," Brady says.

But the rest of us are not so polarized.

This fall Stanford joined forces with 35 other universities for a massive survey of 36,000 people eligible to vote in the U.S.

"If you ask people to say where would you place yourself from one to seven where one is very liberal, seven is very conservative, and four is centrist... most Americans — 50 percent or so — put themselves at four," Brady says. "It looks like the distribution is a normal curve with a few more conservatives than liberals, but essentially everybody in the center."

So there's a disconnect between the electorate and their representatives in Washington. That does not surprise Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, co-author of a book called The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.

"We know voters don't like gridlock," Ornstein says. "They want the people — the people they pay the big bucks to come to Washington — to get together, and to be mature, and to solve problems for the country as a whole. That's a clear message. Of course then they elect people who don't do those kind of things."

The reasons why Congress has become more polarized are well known, including the rise of special interest advocacy groups that spend money on campaigns and push the parties to the extremes. Carefully drawn congressional districts are packed with voters from one party, which tends to produce congressional Democrats who are more liberal, congressional Republicans who are more conservative... and less compromise.

But after November's election, where moderate voters split two to one for the Democrats, there's a sense that voters want a change from the partisan punch-out.

In 2000, George W. Bush promised to be a uniter, not a divider — to change the tone in Washington. The day after elections this past November, he had some regrets.

"We've made some progress changing the tone," he said. "I'm disappointed we haven't made more."

In 1995, after Bill Clinton lost both houses of Congress, he changed the way he governed. Triangulating between his own party and the Republican Congress, he revamped welfare and balanced the budget. Norman Ornstein thinks it's conceivable something like that could happen again.

"George Bush's self-interest is presumably his legacy," Ornstein says. "The Democrats self-interest is in having a 'do-something Congress.' How much will those self-interest incentives dominate these other headaches that come from taking on your base or moving away from things you've been very comfortable with in the past?"

And that's a very big question. Ornstein's co-author, Thom Mann of the Brookings Institution, says that to cross the divide in Washington takes leadership.

"First of all, the president has to be willing to occasionally build a majority with more Democrats than Republicans," Mann says. "He has to be willing to go against his own party."

On illegal immigration, for example, the new Democratic Congress is much more in sync with the president's plan for earned legalization. And there are other "grand bargains" to be had on issues such as Social Security and energy.

But Mann says new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have to take a similar risk and buck her left-wing base... and live up to her promise to let the minority have more input.

"Pelosi has to be willing to lose on occasion, she has to allow the process to play out," Mann says. "Let Republicans have a shot at amending some things and hope to win... that would constitute real leadership in Congress."

Pelosi got a good start this month with big, bipartisan majorities supporting all six bills in her "First 100 Hours" agenda.

And there have been some other signs recently in Washington and beyond the Beltway that the gridlock may be shifting.

The new buzz candidate for president, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, says he would transcend partisan divisions and heal a broken system.

"Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions," Obama said, announcing his plans to explore a presidential run.

And in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger staged a poltical ressurection by reinventing himself as what he calls a "post-partisan" politican.

"The real question is what are the needs of our people?" Schwarzenegger recently said. "We don't need Republican roads or Democratic roads, we need roads. We don't need Republican health care or Democratic health care, we need health care."

Ornstein hopes to see another small sign Tuesday night when President Bush delivers his State of the Union address.

"Just simply look at the dynamics of the crowd on the floor of the House," he says. "The last five State of the Union addresses were deliberately structured so that applause lines would have half the audience jumping up to applaud while the other half sat on their hands in stony silence. You can do that very easily in a speech. You can also do a speech where most of the applause lines have everybody standing up. That would be an unusual State of the Union and that would be the first signal."

Voters don't want the parties to abandon their political principles. They just don't want purity of principle to be the last word. And they want room for compromise and civility. On the first day of the new Congress, the new minority leader in the house, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, put it this way:

"Sometimes what people call partisanship is really a deep disagreement over a means to a shared goal. We should welcome that conversation, encourage it, enjoy it, and be nice about it."

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