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Pelosi exploded the myth of bipartisanship

Pelosi exploded the myth of bipartisanship

Posted: Jul 22, 2021 12:00 AM
Updated: Jul 22, 2021 12:00 AM

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday rejected Jim Jordan and Jim Banks, two Republican members who Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had recommended for the select committee on the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. She argued that those members, who not only voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election but also spread conspiracies about the vote-counting process, threatened "the integrity of the investigation." McCarthy responded by pulling all of his people from the committee. When the committee holds a hearing next week (a spokesman told CNN it will not be delayed), it will contain no allies of former President Donald Trump.

Pelosi was right to reject Jordan and Banks, who, as blood was still drying on the floor of the Capitol, voted to give the insurrectionists what so many of them wanted. At a deeper level, Pelosi's actions here also constitute a crucial development: the rejection of bipartisanship as a positive force in US politics. The select committee will still be bipartisan -- GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump for fomenting the insurrection, will still serve on it -- but the notion that Democratic leaders must work with Republican leaders in order to have political legitimacy is well and truly dead.

As it should be. The fetish for bipartisanship has dominated Washington for at least 80 years. In that time, bipartisanship acquired a rosy glow: to label a policy bipartisan was to deem it both representative and virtuous, the byproduct of opposing sides compromising their way to the best possible solution. But on its own, bipartisanship has never been a virtue. It has been, at best, virtue-signaling -- a legislative both-sidesism that has infected US politics for far too long.

For much of US history, bipartisanship was not lionized. It was only in the mid-20th century that bipartisan compromise began to confer a golden sheen on legislation. That's in part because it was more attainable, and because at times, the results were profoundly beneficial. The two major parties had become a mishmash of ideologies: there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and on the major issues of the day, bipartisanship made life-changing legislation possible. The Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid — all bipartisan.

In the 1940s and 1950s, with the threat of totalitarianism looming large in the American imagination, there was something particularly beneficial to politicians about championing bipartisanship. It showed voters (along with foreign leaders and allies abroad) that American lawmakers followed a standard higher than simple party interests. Compromise elevated them to the ranks of technocratic statesmen (they were nearly all men) who were unencumbered by devotion to party, who were instead dedicated to higher ideals and first principles.

That turned out to be an attractive talking point for politicians well into the 21st century. But it papered over all the things bipartisanship had sanctified. Bipartisanship had accompanied US entry into WWII, but also Vietnam, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan. It had ratified civil rights but also rampant discrimination. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was bipartisan, as was the Defense of Marriage Act. In theory, bipartisanship can help ensure that crucial landmark legislation has a future, even if and when the opposing party takes Congress or the White House. But on its own, bipartisanship was not good or bad; it had no moral valence at all.

But that didn't stop bipartisanship from being touted by politicians as a virtue. And as parties became more ideologically sorted, bipartisanship became both rarer and more sought after, a sign that a policy had more inherent value beyond accomplishing its stated goals. In an era of growing partisanship in the 1990s, both President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich sought bipartisan legislation, even as they battled over government shutdowns and impeachment. The idea that all those ills could be healed with a bipartisan vote on welfare reform or social security privatization was appealing to both men.

By the time President Barack Obama entered office, bipartisanship had become both a prize and a weapon: the Obama administration dragged its feet on landmark legislation, waiting — fruitlessly — for a handful of Republican votes so they could claim the legitimacy of bipartisanship. Republicans, well aware how much Obama wanted that, made it their mission to deny it. As Congressman Tom Cole, a member of Republican House leadership, put it, "We wanted the talking point: 'The only thing bipartisan was the opposition.'"

If Republicans had discovered the power of withholding bipartisanship during the Obama era, Democrats slowly began to understand the limits of working with Republicans in the Trump era, a time when both the President and the party's leadership in Congress proved unreliable dealmakers and craven partisans. But it was the insurrection that made it most clear: even though a handful of Republicans did cross the aisle to ratify the election, denounce the insurrection and impeach Trump a second time, the vast majority did not. How, then, could bipartisanship be a marker of good governance, if most of one party had just voted to overturn democracy?

The continued efforts by the GOP to prevent investigations into the insurrection only confirm that bipartisanship is a useless metric. Senate Republicans blocked an independent commission, and McCarthy has now made clear that the price of Republicans playing ball on the select committee was accepting some of the insurrectionists' biggest supporters as members. Pelosi, who has grokked the new rules of politics far better than most Democrats, did the right thing by saying no.

The point here is not that politics has changed so dramatically that bipartisanship no longer matters. It's that bipartisanship was never a metric for good politics, and by rejecting the Republican leaders' conditions, Pelosi has acknowledged that, and opened the door for a franker assessment of political goods and political harms -- while safeguarding the select committee from those who, with their votes against the election, supported the insurrection.

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