When nine of the 100 or so Republicans considering presidential runs gathered in Iowa last weekend for the Freedom Summit, an event organized by notoriously anti-immigrant Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), nobody expected any encomiums to bipartisanship. Nor did they get any; the menu was all red meat. As well it should be.
That's because it's pre-primary season, and candidates are trying to appeal to party loyalists. It's also because of the nature of today's Republican Party, and broader trends in American politics. But maybe this isn't a bad thing! If no candidate in 2016 pledged to reach across the aisle and bring both parties together, at least that's one line of bull we wouldn't be forced to eat.
The idea that if we could just put aside partisanship, we'd solve all our problems has become a staple of general election rhetoric. Barack Obama launched to national prominence when he told the 2004 Democratic convention, "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America." Four years later as the Democratic nominee, he extolled "the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort." Obama was following in his predecessor's footsteps: At his convention speech in 2000, George W. Bush said, "I don't have enemies to fight. And I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect."
It didn't work out that way for either of them, any more than for Bill Clinton, who also touted his ability to reach across the aisle by pursuing a "Third Way." The most significant legislation of Clinton's first year in office was his 1993 budget, which got precisely zero Republican votes in both the House and Senate, much like the most significant legislation of Barack Obama's first term, the Affordable Care Act.
So imagine if a candidate in the general election, or a president in his inaugural speech, said, "This is my program. I realize that the folks in the other party don't like it. There may be a few places where we can compromise, and if so, that would be terrific. But I'm going to treat the voters like adults and tell them that I'm not expecting a whole lot of cooperation. I'm going to fight for what I promised to do when I ran, and if you don't like the results, you can turn me out in four years."
That would at least be honest, and nobody would be disappointed when the result is partisan fighting.
Partisanship is all but inevitable, anyway, because Congress is now more polarized by party than ever in our history. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats are almost extinct species. You can consider that to be helpful clarity that makes the choices easier for voters, or a terrible tragedy, but it's a fact, and one unlikely to change any time soon.
If you're going to advocate bipartisanship, at least be honest about what it would entail. Because by now, we know that generosity of spirit won't be enough, nor will "reaching out" with invitations to movie night at the White House or a friendly round of golf. Mitch McConnell is not going to agree to raise taxes on the wealthy if President Obama is nicer to him.
The parties fundamentally disagree on most of the major issues we confront. Particularly in the House, they're increasingly elected by highly partisan constituencies, which means that their electoral incentives run against compromise, even if they were personally inclined to seek it out — which most of them aren't. Despite the childish fantasies of the "no labels" crowd, bipartisanship won't happen because everyone steps back and reflects on the depths of their love for America. It'll happen only when both sides have something compelling to gain.
So don't tell us how you're going to transcend partisanship, because you aren't. Tell us where you think you might be able to reach compromises, and explain how you'll overcome the other party's opposition on everything else. That kind of candor is probably what your own party's base would like to hear, and it's what everybody else deserves. At least then we'd know what we're in for.