I intended to duly fulfill my duty as a political columnist and write about the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency. My idea was to focus on the 50 Senate Democrats: They don’t have a single vote to spare, they have to broker deals that satisfy both Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin — America does have a multiparty political system, it’s just tucked inside the Senate Democratic caucus — and yet they’ve held together pretty well, on a pretty ambitious agenda.
But as I talked to Senate Democrats about the past few months, I kept hearing a note of regret. Not about their agenda, or the bills they had passed or the nominations they had cleared. They were proud of all that. What saddened them was that their accomplishments, both past and prospective, depended on partisan strategies — party-line votes, the budget reconciliation process and, potentially, filibuster reform. They wanted to assure me they were still fighting for a bipartisan future. “You have to keep channels open to Republicans,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar told me, even though I hadn’t asked about Republicans.
Bipartisanship on big bills isn’t possible right now, and Senate Democrats know it. Still, they want to work with Republicans, and they want Republicans to work with them, and they muse about where it all went wrong. “The 2017 tax cut bill didn’t get a single Democratic vote in the House and Senate,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told me, disbelief in his voice. “You really have to work at it to not get a single Democratic vote for tax cuts. Everybody likes dessert!”
The yearning for bipartisanship shapes the Senate in profound ways. For instance, it helps the filibuster survive. The filibuster is believed — wrongly, in my view — to promote bipartisanship, and so it maintains a symbolic appeal for those who wish for a more bipartisan Senate. “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Sen. Joe Manchin wrote in The Washington Post. “The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship.”
In the absence of the filibuster, the Senate might pass more legislation, but it would do so in a more partisan way, and some, like Manchin, would see that as a failure no matter the content of the bills. “We’d all prefer bipartisanship, but for some of my colleagues, it’s a very high value,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, told me.
But even senators who’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that the rules do need to change, like Klobuchar, are caught between reform and regret. And so I want to pose an argument that will clash with the catechisms of American politics: Bipartisan governance isn’t innately better than partisan governance. In fact, it’s often worse.
The case for bipartisanship is that we are a divided nation, and legislation should reflect the best ideas of both sides, while not overly antagonizing either. “The truth is, my Democratic friends do not have all the answers and my Republican friends do not, either,” Manchin wrote. “This has always been the case.” He’s right. Neither party can claim omniscience. But in practice, bipartisan governance does not result in legislation featuring the best ideas of Republicans and the best ideas of Democrats. At least in the modern era, that’s likelier to happen through partisan governance.
A bipartisan bill is simply a bill that members of both parties support. That means they can support it ideologically and they can support it politically. It’s that latter condition that’s toughest to fulfill: The minority party doesn’t want to give the majority big, bipartisan accomplishments, because the minority party wants the majority to lose the next election.
But put that aside. Let’s make this easier for bipartisanship and imagine the only condition that needs to be fulfilled is that both parties think a bill is a good idea. Outside of emergencies — and American politics cannot function only during financial crises and pandemics — the set of ideas that both parties can agree on is far smaller and blander than the range of ideas that one party or the other likes. To insist on bipartisanship as a condition of passage is to believe that it’s better for American politics to choose its solutions from the kids’ menu.
Virtually the entire Republican Party signed a pledge to oppose any and all tax increases, so a truly bipartisan approach would mean taxes were simply off the table for policymaking. That would plainly be absurd. But even where more reasonable compromise is possible, problems abound.
Bills both parties agree on are often bills that have seen their most dramatic or unusual ideas sanded off. Compromise bills can be wise legislation, but they often result in policy too modest and mushy to solve problems. We would never want industries to release only products that all the major competitors can agree on — we understand that it’s good for the public to have choices, and sometimes the best product starts as a risky bet, not as a consensus pick.
I should say, in defense of those who miss bipartisanship, that it wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, America’s political parties were organized more by region than by ideology, with conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northern Republicans muddling the party’s disagreements. That created a golden age of bipartisanship, where cross-party deals weren’t just a race to the bottom of the policy barrel. But that era ended long ago, and it’s not coming back anytime soon.
The other argument for bipartisanship is that bipartisan policy is more stable — you avoid, for example, the Republicans’ 10-year war to repeal “Obamacare,” or the Democratic Party’s long fight against the Bush tax cuts. This is a fear Sen. Jon Tester voiced to me when we appeared together on “Real Time With Bill Maher” in February. If you get rid of the filibuster and embrace partisan lawmaking, he said, “every time Congress changes hands, what you did two years ago will be repealed and you’ll go in a different direction.”
This concern is widely held, but I don’t think it’s accurate. Think of the major partisan bills of the past few decades. Liberals loathed the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D, and promises of repeal were constant. But when Democrats took power, they kept (and, through Obamacare, expanded!) Medicare Part D, and when the Bush tax cuts expired, Democrats cut a deal to keep most of them.
Similarly, Republicans professed themselves desperate to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but when they took power, it turned out they didn’t have 50 Senate votes to do anything but defang the individual mandate. If they had succeeded in repealing Obamacare, I suspect it would have been a political calamity for them, as millions would have lost health insurance and known exactly who to blame.
I am not suggesting that partisan governance will never lead to the repeal of valuable legislation. But there’s little in recent history to support the view that political parties will undo everything their predecessors did. Sharp swings are likelier to happen when congressional gridlock pushes policymaking into executive orders — which is true now. After legislation to protect “Dreamers” fell to a filibuster in the Senate, President Barack Obama turned to an executive order. President Donald Trump then reversed that order, and then President Biden reversed Trump’s reversal. If the DREAM ACT — which passed the House and got 55 Senate votes — had been made law in 2010, I think it would have had a better shot at surviving the Trump era intact.
If anything, past legislation in America is too stable. More old policy should be revisited, and if it’s not working, uprooted or overhauled. There’s nothing wrong with one party passing a bill that the next party repeals. That gives voters information they can use to decide who to vote for in the future. If a party repeals a popular bill, it will pay an electoral price. If it repeals an unpopular bill, or replaces it with something better, it’ll prosper. That’s the way the system should work.
We are a divided country, but one way we could become less divided is for the consequences of elections to be clearer. When legislation is so hard to pass, politics becomes a battle over identity rather than a battle over policy. Don’t get me wrong: Fights over policy can be angry, even vicious. But they can also lead to changed minds — as in the winning coalition Democrats built atop the successes of the New Deal — or changed parties, as savvy politicians learn to accept the successes of the other side. There is a reason Republicans no longer try to repeal Medicare and Democrats shrink from raising taxes on the middle class.
This is what Manchin gets wrong: A world of partisan governance is a world in which Republicans and Democrats both get to pass their best ideas into law, and the public judges them on the results. That is far better than what we have now.
The legislation Senate Democrats have passed and considered in their first 100 days is unusually promising precisely because it has been unusually partisan. They are considering ideas they actually think are right for the country — and popular with voters — as opposed to the narrow set of ideas Republicans might support. The question they will face in the coming months is whether they want to embrace partisan legislating, repeatedly using budget reconciliation and even ridding the Senate of the filibuster, or abandon their agenda and leave the rest of the country’s problems unsolved.
“I can tell you this, I am going to do everything I can to get the biggest, boldest change we can, because I think the people I represent depend on it,” Schumer told me. “My party depends on it. But most of all, the future of my country depends on it.”
It will surprise no one to hear that I think Democrats should get rid of the filibuster. But it’s not because I believe Democrats necessarily have the right answers for what ails America. It’s because I believe the right answers are likelier to be found if one party, and then the other, can try its hand at solving America’s problems. Partisan governance gives both parties true input over how America is governed; they just have to win elections. Bipartisan governance, at least with parties this polarized, does the opposite: It deprives both sides of the ability to govern and elections of their consequences.