By Gil Troy, Bipartisan Policy Center, Aug. 20, 2009
Coach Vince Lombardi famously proclaimed: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Actually, in American democratic politics, winning is only half the battle. Presidents need a workable consensus, not just slim victories. That is why bipartisanship is not just a posture. It must be more than serving cookies to opponents in cozy settings. And bipartisanship is not just a tactic. America’s greatest presidents understood that bipartisanship is crucial because leadership is not just about imposing a policy on the people but getting it accepted and implemented.
Although we usually talk about “consent of the governed” only when we learn about the American Revolution, no American leader should forget that our democratic system rests on a voluntary bargain between the leader and the led. Winning big fights by small margins, imposing radical changes on the people despite slim margins of support, risks the goodwill that helps “the governed” grant their “consent.” Al Gore has challenged us to beware our “carbon footprints”: leaders must avoid leaving a “toxic footprint” when wielding power in a democracy. The bigger the change a president seeks, the more important it is for the president to build consensus.
American’s greatest presidents were often visionaries who understood that winning elegantly by building a broad coalition was as important as whether they won. At a key moment during the struggle to pass the Social Security Act of 1935, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s key advisers, Rexford Tugwell stopped opposing the payroll tax. He still believed it was regressive, unfairly burdening the poor. Nevertheless, he recalled, he and another Roosevelt ally Harry Hopkins realized they “wanted a social security system much more than we wanted our own bill. And when the time came we stopped arguing.” Roosevelt himself took a long-term, consensus-building view. He described Social Security, his masterpiece, as a “cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” In that spirit, the Social Security Act passed by lopsided votes of 371 to 33 in the House and 76 to 6 in the Senate.
The Social Security Act broke with America’s constitutional tradition of small government and political culture of self-reliance. The bipartisan backing this radical piece of legislation received was critical to its becoming perhaps the most important law passed in the 20th century, and a given in the American system. Within two decades, the first Republican president to serve since the Democratic New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower, was explaining to his brother Edgar Eisenhower, a doctrinaire conservative, that the number of Americans opposing the welfare state, including Social Security, was “negligible and they are stupid.” President Eisenhower warned that any political party that failed to accept the new consensus would wither. Franklin Roosevelt’s instincts for bipartisanship in the 1930s – reciprocated by most Republicans then — flourished into a lasting consensus.
Both Democrats and Republicans who want to solve the health care crisis – and other crises in America today – should learn from FDR that going broad and bipartisan is the way to go.