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Because Bipartisanship Is Dead Until 2011: A Defense of Senate Moderates

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After the Republicans got thrashed in the 1964 elections, a GOP senator told columnist Joe Alsop, "That damn Lyndon Johnson hasn't just grabbed the middle of the road. He's a bit to the right of center, as well as a bit to the left of center. And with Johnson hogging the whole road -- right, left and center -- where the devil can we go except into the ditch?"

Well put. So they tried to steer clear of that ditch by claiming what little they could of the center. Republican Senate Whip Tom Kuchel, a moderate, had refused to endorse Barry Goldwater in the fall, and some more conservative members of the caucus called for his ouster. Alsop wrote that California's "Goldwaterites and John Birch Society members" were clamoring for his head, treating him "as though he were Chief Justice Earl Warren."

Yet when the Senate Republican caucus met in January, not a single member opposed Kuchel's reelection as whip. He was even renominated by a Goldwater stalwart, John Tower of Texas. The Republicans worked with President Johnson on his signature initiatives (much like Democrats did sixteen years later, when they gave President Reagan dozens of Senate votes in deference to his victory).

That was a different time, when Senate Republicans wanted to get out of the ditch, as opposed to wanting to drag everyone else down there with them. Together, the modern Senate GOP caucus represents 40 'no' votes -- 40 members, camping in a ditch until they have A) a Republican president or B) the ability to stop business in the Senate.

The latter is looking far more likely, and Vice President Biden is right when he says that GOP gains in 2010 could be the "end of the road" for the President's agenda. Biden is also right when he says, "It's not that Republicans are bad guys." In fact, most, if not all members of their caucus have done substantial things across party-lines before. It's just that, as Biden says, they've made a "bet" for the 2010 elections on the Obama administration looking like a failure. So they seek to diminish everything he does. And one of their best cudgels is denying him the ability to claim "bipartisanship" on any legislation he passes.

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, elaborated on this point, calling the Republican strategy of all-out opposition as one that "buys them momentum in the short term," but will be a burden by next fall. "Does anyone think," Menendez said, "that a year from now, fourteen months from now, that we will not be in better shape than we are today? ... Republicans will have done absolutely nothing to have put us in better shape."

The Republicans sat out the vote on the economic stimulus, save for three members (one of whom is now a Democrat). The other two are so spooked by their base that one is completely unlikely to vote for a health care reform bill and the other will only do it under extreme duress. These are the critical actions of this Congress, and when things get better the Republicans will be able to claim absolutely no credit.

That's right, the GOP cannot even claim credit for bringing the bills to the middle of the road -- the Democrats are hogging all of it. And that is a good thing, despite what some may think. For example, Jonathan Chait wrote this about how President Obama approached health care reform in the same way he approached the economic-stimulus package:

Obama began with hopes of winning broad bipartisan consensus for a sweeping overhaul. But staunch GOP opposition and the fecklessness of moderate Democrats forced him to scale back both his political and policy ambitions. Ultimately, he eked out a partisan bill, which moderates scaled back for no coherent reason other than to burnish their own centrist credentials.

Chait makes a strong point, but the value of burnishing centrist credentials should not be discounted. Despite what Orrin Hatch is saying on Hardball, the Democrats have a sizable moderate contingent and it is important to keep them happy and influential.

And who's to say that Obama is hoping for broad bipartisan consensus anymore? Judging by Biden's comments, the White House is well aware of the GOP's bet on absolute obstruction. Sure, some Republicans might have flirted with the stimulus early on, but health care? Forget about it....

Now, you might be wondering, 'How do Democrats benefit from all this tempering, all this self-restraint?' After all, modern politics tends to reward the cynical and the greedy, doesn't it? Well, the GOP offers no variety, and where there is no variety, there is no depth. If the Democrats retain the left, the center, and a little bit of the right, they encompass the vast majority of Americans -- 'the new Silent Majority,' if you will -- who are sick of games and want results.

So when we scratch our heads and wonder why Democrats are taking so long and having these debates within their own party, think about it as if this were a debate among the entire Senate. Because right now, their 60-vote caucus is the United States Senate.

And let's hope that when 2011 rolls around, and the Republicans look around their ditch to see fewer members, they'll stop and say, 'Hey, uh, maybe we should get back on the road?'... America will be better for it, and hopefully no party -- Democrat or Republican -- will ever make this kind of bet again.