Michael KreponBye-Bye Bipartisanship

A friend and I have an ongoing debate about the reasons for the plague of partisan rancor now afflicting Washington in general and arms control in particular. For my friend, the passage of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) was the Rubicon. Before Obamacare, he points out that important domestic legislation received bipartisan support. These numbers back up his argument:

Social Security Act of 1935
60 Democrats yes; 16 Republicans yes
1 Democrats no; 5 Republicans no
284 Democrats yes; 81 Republicans yes
15 Democrats no; 15 Republicans no

Civil Rights Act of 1964
46 Democrats yes; 27 Republicans yes
21 Democrats no; 6 Republicans no
152 Democrats yes; 138 Republicans yes
96 Democrats no; 34 Republicans no

Affordable Care Act
58 Democrats yes; 2 Independents yes; 0 Republicans yes
0 Democrats no; 39 Republicans no
219 Democrats yes; 0 Republicans yes
34 Democrats no; 178 Republicans no

After the White House and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill rammed through Obamacare, my friend believes that Republican Members of Congress resolved not to work with President Obama. In my view, the absence of bipartisanship predates the battles over health care, reflecting quarter-century-long trends within the Republican Party and deepening divisions within the country at large.

Here’s my reasoning: Trends toward assured incumbency, reinforced by two decades of redistricting and gerrymandering prior to Obamacare, have led to sharper partisanship. When seats are assured to one party or the other, the locus of competition shifts from general elections to primaries, and cross-over voting on Capitol Hill becomes rarer. Bipartisan votes were a regular occurrence on motherhood-and-apple-pie issues. They are now restricted to apple pie. The “do nothing” Congress that Harry S Truman used as a foil to win the presidency in 1948 passed 906 bills. Compare that with what passes for legislating at present.

Much political commentary dwells on the defeat of Tea Party candidates as an indicator of the supremacy of Main Street Republicanism, even though every serious challenge from the Right – regardless of the outcome — reinforces the Tea Party agenda on Capitol Hill. The most dramatic Tea Party upset win — the defeat of Minority Leader Eric Cantor, who was traveling the country playing out ambitions to become Speaker instead of stumping his district — was attributed to his openness to immigration reform legislation. Immigration legislation is now dead for the foreseeable future. An analysis in the New York Times of genial, low-key Senator Thad Cochran’s narrow Senate primary victory over a Tea Party challenger in Mississippi offered a cautionary note to Republicans: “It is no longer enough to quietly represent your constituents. You have to join the partisan fray.”

This kind of partisanship doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. The internationally-minded wing of the Republican Party in the Senate has been decimated since the George H.W. Bush administration negotiated two strategic arms reduction treaties with Russia. Its remaining spokespersons, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, lost their standing by championing wars prosecuted by the George W. Bush administration that were poorly conceived and badly executed.

If the reluctant Jeb Bush declines to run for President in 2016, the current crop of Republican contenders will be headlined by (1) Ted Cruz, whose principal achievements in the Senate to date are temporarily closing down the government and blocking ratification of a Treaty recognizing the rights of the disabled; (2) Rand Paul, the Republican analog to George McGovern; and (3) Marco Rubio, whose impact on the Senate has been felt mostly by placing holds on the Obama administration’s nominees. What they have in common, besides opposition to arms-control treaties as an infringement of U.S. sovereignty and military capabilities, is the resolute pursuit of deficit reduction at a time of declining U.S. influence in the world.

The biggest Democratic makeover during the past quarter-century was when Bill Clinton moved his Party toward the center. The Republican Party’s biggest makeover has been to move away from the political center. Self-professed Reagan Republicans like Cruz actually have little in common with Reagan’s record of legislation in Sacramento and Washington. One example: Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons. Republicans on Capitol Hill now want to stop dismantling empty missile silos.

When did the Republican Party lose its moorings? Barack Obama’s presidency and his pursuit of the Affordable Care Act were certainly accentuating factors, but the shift away from the legacies of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush started earlier.

In retrospect, the pivot point might have been George H.W. Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992. Four years later, Fox News was launched, broadcasting its daily dose of fear and loathing. Then came the Clinton impeachment circus in 1998. What clearer indicator can there be of going off-kilter than to elevate a sexual indiscretion to the level of impeachment proceedings? Whitewater has been followed by Benghazi, with stops in between during every news cycle. There’s more to come, as Hillary gears up for another presidential run.

What does all this mean for arms control? The first rule of pursuing treaty ratification is to avoid partisanship. Democrats in the Oval Office will have a harder time doing this than Republicans, but it’s unclear when the next Republican President will be sworn in, since the Republican Party has adopted political agendas that work far better in safe Congressional districts than nationally. Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill are chipping away at the treaties Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush once championed. What mainstream Republicans used to consider agreements that advanced U.S. national security are now considered infringements on America’s freedom of action.


  1. krepon (History)

    From David Culp:

    “The intense partisanship in Congress started with the election of Obama in 2008. The stimulus package (AKA, the Recovery Act) was the first major piece of legislation in his administration. The bill passage Congress on February 13, 2009, 24 days after Obama’s inauguration and at the height of the recession.

    Only three Republican senators voted for the bill: Collins (ME), Snowe (ME) and Specter (PA).

    I still remember the vote. I was shocked by Lugar (IN) and Voinovich (OH) voting against the bill, two relatively moderate Republicans whose states were being devastated by the recession. (I grew up in Indiana.)

    Blaming the current partisanship in Congress on Obamacare is incorrect history.”

    David also offers this graphic depiction of polarization from 1879 to 2013:


    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      David is entitled to his opinion, of course, but the graphic does not show any sharp uptick of polarization in 2009. Instead there appears to be a steady upward trend in polarization since at least 1977. On the website where the graphic was posted, I could find no clear explanation for why.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      A few more words about the graphic: It only represents Congressional partisan voting patterns along a liberal-conservative spectrum. It shows that Congressional polarization is at the highest levels ever. This leads to the general lack of partisan cooperation even on matters of national importance (e.g., getting a budget passed on time).

      The general voting public is substantially less polarized. Indeed, a good case can be made that moderates are grossly underrepresented in Congress, relative to their numbers in the American electorate. Finding ways to increase the representation of moderates in Congress could assist in getting Congress to act more responsibly.

  2. John Schilling (History)

    I read Clinton’s win over Bush I as the point where the Republicans learned to stop nominating moderate centrists in hope of winning elections, and the ACA (more generally, the 111th congress) as the point where Republican legislators learned to stop voting alongside Democrats for moderate centrist measures. Two different steps along the same path.

    When and where the Democrats learned those same lessons, is left as an exercise for the student.

  3. J_kies (History)

    Pretty certain the current polarization is the direct result of the planned and executed effort by Karl Rove to ‘create a durable Republican majority’. The strategy mapped pursuit of redistricting and state control while rejecting the ‘big tent’ that previously held the now extinct moderate and intellectual wings of the party. William F. Buckley would have strong statements to the current philosophies in sway as he ejected their intellectual predecessors in the John Birch society and similar narrow appeals. I see the GOP as the party of Jefferson Davis reborn with many of the original themes in play.

    While the Democrats aren’t angels, they at least resemble the people that used to compromise.

  4. Cthippo (History)

    I have a somewhat different take on it. I think a lot of this actually goes back to the end of the cold war.

    I’m not sure how much of this is human nature versus how much is American society, but we tend to define ourselves not by who we are but by who we’re against. People have a much harder time coming together to build or accomplish something than they do coming together to fight something.

    When we lost our external “enemy” in 1990 we were left with no one to be against except ourselves. There was a brief period of cohesion after 9-11, but “terrorism” turned out to be a pretty ineffective common enemy and we reverted to hating each other. The only way we’re going to move beyond the infighting in America is if we can find someone external to fight against.

    Oddly enough, I think Putin and the Russian people find themselves in the same boat and so there is a desire on both sides to return to cold war levels of animosity just so we have someone we can all agree to hate again.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Wow! Human nature means a return to cold war! I hope this is untrue, because cold war plus nuclear weapons equals nuclear war, eventually.

      Fortunately, human nature does not require either hot war or cold war. Domestically, good government puts a lid on crime by punishing crime doers, and facilitates cooperation by enforcing contracts and punishing fraudsters and thieves.

      Even without world government, there is some incentive for nations to cooperate, because nations often find that a reputation for not cheating others brings benefits from cooperation. There is also the apparent phenomenon called the “democratic peace” — democratic nations rarely or never fight other democratic nations.

      Stronger international institutions dedicated to enforcing disarmament and peace would also be likely to work. The current United Nations does not work this way, because five nations each have absolute veto power on U.N. enforcement. Actually getting to a reform or replacement of the U.N. is a political chore in itself, but is not blocked by any known fact of human nature.

    • Dave Chapman (History)

      Agreed. The end of the Cold War also meant the end of an unusual period of honest, bi-partisan government.

      After 1989, things returned to normal (unfortunately).

  5. Andy (History)

    I think it’s a combination of factors. First is generational – the Boomer generation, in particular, approaches politics very differently than earlier generations. It’s no surprise that the shift toward more partisanship began in the late 1970’s as Boomers became a major political force. As the GI and Silent generation die off and leave politics, the partisanship gets worse – they are almost gone now. The reason is that boomers (and probably Gen-X, though the jury is still out on them), express their politics through ideology and discrete issues much more than previous generations, who focused more on personality, character and patronage politics. And, of course, there’s the fact the Boomers are much more individualistic in their worldview compared to the GI and Silent generations.

    Secondly, as was already mentioned, there is the Cold War, which created a bipartisanship out of necessity which wasn’t restricted to foreign affairs.

    • krepon (History)

      Andy, Dave, Jonah, Cthippo, J_kies,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
      One reason why I don’t think the absence of bipartisanship is a passing phase: wars used to bring Americans together — at least they did during WW II and Korea. Ever since Vietnam, major wars have increased domestic divisions.

  6. Alan Glaser (History)

    You might want to show the first paragraph of this article to your friend:


  7. Skeptical Prof (History)

    Wow, lots of rose tinted history here.

    Bipartisanship was rare and when it did exist it was in the face of massive security threats…WWII, USSR. Even then remember the deep controversy PRIOR to WWII about US foreign policy.

    As far as treaties, SALT II was certainly not supported in a bipartisan way. CTBT has been floating around for a while. And even INF, look at the politics leading up to it. It took Reagan’s double-zero to get that and the collective heads of the left nearly exploded (bad pun) over that strategy. And the defense build-up? Yeah that was supported by most Dems, right? On non-foreign issues, there is a reason that “to Bork” is now a verb.

    As far as the GOP moving right..sure from the leftish way they evolved for a couple of decades. Imagine you went to 1950 and saw a politician in favor of social security, a 40 hour work week, limited unemployment insurance, the dismantling of the poll tax, etc. That politician would be seen as a progressive at that time, yet 90% of GOP politicians have no problem with those positions now. It is more accurate to say the country moved left (geez, Nixon imposed wage and price controls, banned private possession of gold and created the EPA…that is a massive leftward shift), the GOP started to go along and now wants to back up a couple of steps.

    So enough of the cherry-picking of anecdotes. For every bipartisan example you give during the pre-Vietnam era I can give you an example of an intensely partisan political battle.

    Basically there are three things at work. We get bipartisan when threats are perceived to be high (9/11 anyone?) and ambiguity drive debate, we view the past with selective memory (back in my day…), and the progressive movement achieved many of their goals in the past five decades and not everyone likes it.

    BTW, on arms control, what significant good has New START done? The crazy counting scheme allows the Russians to build up, we were reducing anyway, and Putin certainly has not become a better international partner.

    So please, please, please try to consider that those who take very different positions than you might not be knuckle-dragging morons.

    • krepon (History)

      Chastened, as warranted.