Establishing Bipartisanship Is a Big Challenge Bipartisanship has been the talk of the nation's capital since Democrats won control of Congress in November. Is it possible for Congress and the White House to make good on their rhetoric?
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Establishing Bipartisanship Is a Big Challenge

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Establishing Bipartisanship Is a Big Challenge

Establishing Bipartisanship Is a Big Challenge

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Much as it may bother some of them, leaders of the two political parties have to share power. If they want to get much done between now and the end of 2008, they may have to work together. So this week, NPR begins a series of reports and conversations called Crossing the Divide. We'll look at ways to bring people together, and we will also ask if gridlock could be good.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson begins in Washington, where everybody says they want to cooperate.

MARA LIASSON: In the world of Washington, nothing concentrates the mind like an election that changes the control of Congress. Americans last November 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.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in a civil matter.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the Representatives): Democrats pledge civility and bipartisanship in Congress.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): …with 60 votes on the board. That means we will need to work with our friends on the Republican side of the aisle to reach some consensus…

Senator JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): Republicans and Democrats can disagree without being disagreeable to each other.

President BUSH: I'm confident that we can work together.

LIASSON: 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 experiment and 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."

Professor DAVID BRADY (Deputy Director, Hoover Institution, Stanford University): The idea was that if two institutions that were one on a moderate left and one on a moderate right, where to get together on an issue like polarization, that we would be able to come up with a more accurate picture.

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

Mr. BRADY: Well, Congress is polarized in the present era, by any sort of where you want to measure it - percent of times Democrats vote against Republicans, level of party voting.

LIASSON: 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 United States.

Mr. BRADY: 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 a centrist - most Americans, 50 percent are so, put themselves at four. It looks like the distribution is a normal curve, with a few more conservatives than liberals, but essentially everybody in the center.

LIASSON: So there's a disconnect between the electorate and their representatives in Washington. That doesn't 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."

Dr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (Co-Author, "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track"): We know voters don't like gridlock. They want the people they pay the big bucks to to come to Washington, to get together and be mature and solve problems for the country as a whole. That's a clear message. Of course, they then elect people who don't do those kinds of things.

LIASSON: 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 district are packed with voters from one party, which tends to produce more liberal Democrats, more conservative Republicans, 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 to 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 the elections in November, he had some regrets.

President BUSH: Well, we made some progress on changing the tone. I'm disappointed we haven't made more.

LIASSON: 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 reformed welfare and balanced the budget. Norman Ornstein thinks it's conceivable something like that could happen again.

Dr. ORNSTEIN: George Bush's self interest, presumably, is his legacy. The Democrat's 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?

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

Dr. TOM MANN (Co-Author, "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track"): First of all, the president has to be willing to occasionally build a majority with more Democrats than Republicans. He has to be willing to go against his own party.

LIASSON: On illegal immigration, for example, where 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 like 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.

Dr. MANN: Pelosi has to be ready to lose on occasion. She has to allow the process to play out, let Republicans and others have a shot at amending something and a hope to win. That would constitute genuine leadership in Congress.

LIASSON: Pelosi got a good start this month with big bipartisan majorities supporting all six bills in her first hundred-hour 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, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, says he transcends partisan divisions and heal a broken system.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): 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.

LIASSON: And in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger staged a political resurrection by reinventing himself as what he calls a post-partisan politician.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): The real question is what are the needs of our people? 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.

LIASSON: Norman Ornstein is hoping to see another small sign tomorrow night, when President Bush delivers his State of the Union address.

Dr. ORNSTEIN: Just simply look at the dynamics of the crowd on the floor of the House. 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.

LIASSON: 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 on the House, John Boehner, put it this way.

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

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The series is called crossing the divide. And NPR Washington editor Ron Elving explores the background for that series at It continues tomorrow when we'll look ahead at the president's State of the Union speech and the delicate art of the rebuttal.

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