The uses and limits of bipartisanship

Many Democrats seem to view bipartisanship as a trap for naïve centrists.  This view is understandable given the way Republicans play political hardball.  But the right response to hardball is to use bipartisanship strategically, the way Republicans do, not to eschew it altogether.

There are several advantages to pursuing bipartisan agreements.  First, many people hate political conflict in Washington.  They want bipartisanship.  And rightly or wrongly Democrats ran on it, and campaign promises matter. 

Second, bipartisanship is sometimes a path to modest legislative victories.  To be sure, many victories achieved through bipartisanship will be modest and disappointing.  I doubt the recently passed gun control legislation will accomplish much.  But even a highly imperfect compromise on an expanded Child Tax Credit or the Electoral Count Act would be hugely important.  When they are within reach, Democrats should grasp them.

Of course, it is not clear that a bipartisan effort to expand the CTC or fix the ECA can succeed.  But this brings us to the next advantage of bipartisanship:  failed efforts at bipartisanship are an important tool for educating voters about the obstructionist tactics and extremism of Republicans.  This is essential for attracting cross-pressured voters and expanding the Democratic coalition.

In the case of abortion, the Democrats could propose a bipartisan settlement on abortion that would strengthen the real reproductive autonomy of women and appeal to 70% or more of the electorate.  Simple rhetorical shifts that acknowledge the qualms many voters feel about abortions later in pregnancy and that focus on conservative concerns about government intrusion into private decisions could reassure cross-pressured Republicans that the Democrats respect their values and can be trusted to do the right thing with unified control of the government.  When the Republicans reject any reasonable compromise, their capitulation to extremists would become apparent even to some voters who do not pay much attention to politics.

The downside of bipartisanship is that when it works, it obscures the real differences between the parties and the extremism of Republicans.  Bipartisan support for making Juneteenth a national holiday allows Republicans to pose as racial moderates; bipartisan renewal of the Violence Against Women Act allows Republicans to pose as reasonable supporters of women’s rights.  Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell shrewdly encouraged his more moderate members to negotiate gun control legislation with Senate Democrats following the Uvalde massacre to obscure the extremism of Republicans on this issue.

This doesn’t mean that successful bipartisanship is always wrong, but it raises the question of how Democrats can use it to their advantage. 

There are no one-size-fits-all answers here, but one possible strategy is to state an interest in bipartisanship but to declare that Republicans are extremists who refuse to compromise.  In the case of guns, the Democrats could have said “There is no point in having bipartisan negotiations with Republicans on guns.  We know they have been captured by the gun lobby and oppose even the most sensible measures to reduce gun deaths.  Of course, we would be happy to be proven wrong.  If the Republicans are really interested in gun control, they should give us draft legislation.  We are not interested in more empty talk.”  If the Republicans actually produced legislation Democrats could denounce it as inadequate but pass it anyway.  This would clarify the differences between the parties, and it would put Democrats in a better position to denounce the Republicans the next time someone shoots up a school with an automatic weapon.

On issues like the Child Tax Credit, where Republican support is essential and failure to pass legislation is less likely to be seen as extreme, the case for working across the aisle is stronger.