Opinion

The myth of bipartisanship

Let's stop pretending Republicans and Democrats can actually work together for the American people

In what might be the least shocking news of 2021, it's starting to look as though a bipartisan congressional deal on an infrastructure bill might not actually come to fruition.

Oh, negotiations on the issue are still officially underway — President Biden last week trimmed his proposal's price tag from $2.25 trillion down to $1.7 trillion, to be spent over a decade. But GOP officials turned up their noses at the offer, saying the costs need to be much lower. (The Republican bid started out at $568 billion over five years, though it has gone up somewhat since.) The media accordingly reported that an agreement between Democrats and Republicans was growing unlikely. "Compromise appears elusive," The Wall Street Journal reported. Hopes for bipartisan deals on Biden's proposals appear "dim," added The New York Times.

Still, at least one Republican said she was holding out hope that a deal can be done.

"This will determine whether or not we can work together in a bipartisan way on an important issue," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Sunday on ABC.

Probably not. There are two things we know about bipartisanship at this moment in American politics. Cooperation on big, contentious issues is all but dead. But politicians are going to act as though such agreements are achievable anyway. There is nearly zero reason to expect a grand bargain between Republicans and Democrats on the infrastructure bill, in other words, and just about everybody knows it.

So why the act?

For politicians, it's all about the incentives: Bipartisanship is popular. Collins, a Republican in a state that mostly votes Democratic in presidential contests, has a particular need to be seen by her constituents as willing to work with the other party. Across the aisle, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who stands in the way of his party's hopes of ending the filibuster, has a similar need to appeal to his state's GOP voters. More broadly, Democratic and independent voters are big fans of bipartisan dealing. Republican voters are less committed to compromise, but GOP officials can score a victory of sorts by complaining the Democratic proposals are just too extreme for them to get to "yes." All the players have reasons to publicly profess a yearning for cooperation, even if nobody really expects or intends those desires to come to fruition. Mostly, it's just performance.

Less understandable is why anybody — including the media — might treat the charade as legit.

By now, it is well established that the GOP strategy for dealing with Democratic presidencies is to deny them even the slightest hint of bipartisan credibility. During the early years of Barack Obama's presidency, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) "realized that it would be much easier to fight Obama if Republicans first made a public show of wanting to work with him," Michael Grunwald reported in 2012's The New New Deal. One senator told Grunwald that McConnell's orders were that if Obama was for something, "we had to be against it."

"All he cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory," former Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said of McConnell.

McConnell, then as now, was the Senate minority leader. There is no public evidence, and no reason to expect, that his strategy has changed — and thus every reason to suspect the GOP doesn't really intend to support an infrastructure bill, no matter what form it takes. Republicans don't appear to have become more moderate over the last decade. Voter memories can be short, though. Media reports about negotiations between Democrats and Republicans would do well to continually reflect the recent history of McConnell and his party, if only to help readers and viewers set realistic expectations. Stories that suggest hopes for a deal are "dimming" suggest a deal was ever possible to begin with. When Susan Collins tells television viewers about "the test" of bipartisan governance, it implies the test can be passed. That's not necessarily so.

Democrats probably aren't going to wait around much longer for Republicans to join them. If a deal with Republicans isn't forthcoming soon, Biden will "change course" and attempt to pass a bill through budget reconciliation, which allows spending and taxing proposals to pass the Senate at the 50-vote threshold instead of the usual 60. "If they're not coming forward, we've got to go forward alone," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told CBS Sunday.

So there probably won't be a deal on infrastructure. Even without Republican votes, though, the final bill will provide jobs, rebuild roads, grow America's housing stock, and do a lot of other good things. That's real stuff. Bipartisanship at this point is a fairytale — something nice to playact and dream about, but that's all.

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