The Holy Grail of Bipartisanship

Behind the tweets: Clinging to the dream of bipartisanship now can hasten the demise of the American democratic experiment

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On June 8, US Senators Warner, Manchin, Romney, Shaheen, Collins and Sinema take a break after meeting on June 8 for bipartisan talks about infrastructure. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

We are dealing with alternate realities. One party is showing that they no longer believe in democracy to get and keep power; this party is taking aggressive, visible actions across the country to deny Americans the right to vote; and they are using the tools of the Senate to ensure that the opposition, which is currently in the majority, fails to succeed in enacting inclusive policies based on American ideals and values.

The other party—currently possessing a majority, albeit a painfully slim one—is holding onto an increasingly antiquated picture of representative government in which two parties share a commitment to democracy and are simply battling over differences in policy. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are the worst offenders of this nostalgic and wrong-headed view, refusing to budge on ending the filibuster and clinging to the belief that bipartisanship is an attainable holy grail for a happy collective future.

It’s easy to imagine that their Republican “friends” are laughing with gusto (behind their backs) at their naïve perspective—as if there really are two equal sides of a shared future, as if the political “game” is something more than a facade for a dangerous combatant that doesn’t just want to win but is determined to destroy the game board itself.

Between the rejection of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection, the continuing refusal to end the Big Lie of election fraud, and the shameless commitment to deny millions of Americans access to the ballot box, the Republicans could not be more clear about their disinterest in the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the sacred right of voting. In so doing, they are not only telling Democrats that they are not obliged to participate in legitimate democracy, they are turning their backs on the recent history of their own leadership that at the very least voiced this duty.

In November of 1981, when the Voting Rights Act was extended, President Ronald Reagan said, “For this nation to remain true to its principles, we cannot allow any American's vote to be denied, diluted or defiled. The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.”

In 2006, President George W. Bush extended the Voting Rights Act with these words: “In four decades since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, we've made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending…Today, we renew a bill that helped bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy.”

I’m the last one to suggest that Ronald Reagan was devoted to creating a more inclusive America. Or that George Bush, whose victory in 2000 depended on a decision of the Supreme Court about hanging chads in Florida, didn’t exploit the tools of voter suppression and other dirty tricks to secure power.

But at least they felt obliged to espouse their respect for higher values. In this Trump-fueled era, in contrast, in which democratic principles are so easily dismissed and the inspiration of democracy is treated like the cloak of fools, it’s important to remember how far we’ve fallen.

Several months ago, Arizona Sen. Sinema made a lot of people wonder about her instincts and her intentions when she did her part to deny the $15 minimum wage. Her continuing determination to stick by the filibuster and her belief in bipartisanship provides fresh doubt about how tethered to reality she is.

Her op-ed in The Washington Post this week illustrated that she still believes in the unicorn of bipartisanship. (For the record, I don’t say any of this with glee: I too dream of a country where elected officials from across the political spectrum are committed to governance and working for the interests of democracy.)

“The best way to achieve durable, lasting results? Bipartisan cooperation…bipartisan policies that stand the test of time could help heal our country’s divisions and strengthen Americans’ confidence that our government is working for all of us and is worthy of all of us.

“Instability, partisanship and tribalism continue to infect our politics. The solution, however, is not to continue weakening our democracy’s guardrails. If we eliminate the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, we will lose much more than we gain.”

And one of the examples of what we might lose with the ending of the filibuster? If the Democrats passed the For the People Act by a simple majority, she says, we could “see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections.” As if these attacks are not already underway across the country at the state level.

Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent wisely notes the fallacy of her position:

“…seriously grappling with that reigning reality would render Sinema’s stance publicly untenable. Sinema says she supports the For the People Act, which means she generally supports using federal legislation to check such abuses. Yet Sinema simultaneously downplays the very existence of those abuses.”

On Tuesday this week, the day after Sinema’s op-ed ran, Senate Republicans employed the filibuster to block debate on the voting rights legislation. Every Democrat voted to begin debate and every Republican voted to block the bill. That made it 50-50, 10 votes short of the 60 filibuster-proof votes required to begin debate. So much for the dream of bipartisanship as our democracy hangs in the balance.

Two final notes:

I offer this without comment. You know where I stand. We are still waiting for Attorney General Merrick Garland to speak up.

I’ve taken my share of hits that I don’t reach out enough to the Trumpists. I don’t minimize the importance of changing seemingly intransigent minds and closed hearts; this is tough, serious and necessary work. But if “the choir” is not singing with harmonious commitment and duly motivated, then the battle is already over.

As we learned in the 2020 election, Democrats only gained the majority because of the painstaking, dedicated work to expand voter turnout. That took on-the-ground, door-to-door labor, and it took enough voices singing loudly and clearly about the necessity of making change.


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