By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-16-09
When Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine voted for the Senate Finance Committee’s health bill this week, Democrats rejoiced. “We have today a bipartisan bill,” White House Press Secretary Joe Gibbs exulted. While it made sense for Democrats to welcome Snowe’s support after an excruciating, high-stakes process, one moderate maverick crossing the aisle does not make the bill truly bipartisan. Mistaking a deviation for a trend in politics is like mistaking one defection for a peace treaty during wartime.
Wherever one stands on the health care debate, and on Senator Snowe’s decision, it is misleading to call this week’s tokenism bipartisanship. True bipartisanship means working together, building bridges, finding common interests, forging consensus. Bipartisanship is Republicans and Democrats spurred by the graciousness of John McCain and Barack Obama, celebrating the election of the first African-American President last November. Bipartisanship is McCain and 13 other centrist Senators creating a “Gang of Fourteen” to approve Republican judicial nominations so as to head off the “nuclear option” threatening Senate prerogatives Democrats were enjoying. And bipartisanship is the shared feelings of mourning mingled with patriotism after 9/11, epitomized by dozens of tearful, subdued members of Congress spontaneously singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps hours after the downing of Flight 93, which may have been targeting that very site.
Historically, true bipartisanship occurred when righteous renegades or statesmanlike party leaders led others to create a broad coalition, even if reluctantly. Back in 1964, Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader, was the key figure in breaking the 83-day filibuster against the landmark Civil Rights Bill. President Lyndon Johnson gave Senator Dirksen his famous “treatment,” understanding the secret formula for Congressional cajolery: one part flattery, one part bribery, leavened by a sense of history. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, deployed by Johnson as point man, recalled wooing Dirksen aggressively but elegantly: “I began a public massage of his ego, and appealed to his vanity. I said he should look at this issue as ‘a moral issue, not a partisan one.’ The gentle pressure left room for him to be the historically important figure in our struggle, the statesman above bipartisanship….” More crassly, Humphrey admitted he even would have been willing to kiss “Dirksen’s ass on the Capitol steps.”
Humphrey finally succeeded without going that far. Dirksen broke the filibuster, quoting Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality … in education and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied it is here.” The cloture vote passed with a surprisingly wide margin of 71 to 29. When asked how he became a force pushing for civil rights Dirksen grandly replied, “I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind.”
Dirksen’s sense of history made him immortal – they named a Senate Office building after him, among other things. Moreover he saved the Republican Party. Today, whatever else their standing with African-Americans may be at any particular moment, Republicans can say with pride that they helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, thanks to Everett Dirksen.
Similarly, in the 1940s, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg helped lead his party and the nation away from a pinched, provincial, isolationism. President Harry Truman could construct his emerging Cold War foreign policy as bipartisan, thanks especially to Vandenberg. On Friday, April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, Truman lunched with seventeen congressional leaders. Vandenberg hailed this unprecedented move for ending Franklin Roosevelt’s era of presidential unilateralism. Vandenberg’s pronouncement that “politics stops at the water’s edge” built popular consensus behind America’s containment strategy. Vandenberg remained a Republican and occasionally contradicted the President, saying that frank exchanges facilitated true unity. The senator saw himself leading the “loyal opposition” putting “national security ahead of partisan advantage.”
Senator Vandenberg’s journey from ardent partisan isolationist to leading bipartisan interventionist reflected the massive ideological shift Franklin Roosevelt facilitated, and Harry Truman completed. Vandenberg’s rift with the Republican isolationists underlined the continuing American resistance to becoming a world superpower. America did not even have a standing army. Many isolationists such as “Mr. Republican,” Ohio Senator Robert Taft, reluctantly accepted the fight against fascism but hoped returning to normalcy included restoring America’s characteristic insulation.
Facing a divided country and a treacherous world, Truman crusaded for cooperation. In his first speech to Congress, on April 16, 1945, Truman said only “a united nation deeply devoted to the highest ideals” could provide the “enlightened leadership” the world needed. This strategy, and both Vandenberg’s and Truman’s good works, were vindicated repeatedly, culminating with Soviet Communism’s collapse, which historians credit as a bipartisan victory.
By contrast, a century earlier the “Compromise of 1850” was not much of a compromise — or too much of a compromise. No one was happy. Henry Clay’s nationalist attempt to craft an omnibus package had failed, rejected in the summer of 1850. The legislation passed – but ultimately failed – because the young Democratic Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas crafted a series of shifting congressional coalitions passing individual parts of the legislation, reflecting sectional differences not national concerns. Southerners supported the individual planks which pleased Southerners, while Northern representatives endorsed the pro-Northern legislation. There was no reconciliation, legislative or otherwise. The misnamed Compromise of 1850 failed to find common ground or common terms, the essential elements of bipartisanship. In playing to sectional differences not splitting the difference, the Compromise spread the pain without consolidating any gain.
Senators Dirksen and Vandenberg made history because they were not renegades but pioneers, leading their reluctant, partisan followers across the Red Sea to the promised land of bipartisanship to benefit America. Presidents Johnson and Truman – with assists from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others — understood that bipartisanship is not about luring one or two mavericks across the aisle, but convincing a broad swath of citizens and leaders that change is coming, and better to be on the right side of history.