It's Always Politics

It's Always Politics

Politicians love to play the bipartisan card, but there's always something political at stake.

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the source: ‘Going Bipartisan’: Politics by Other Means” by Peter Trubowitz and Nicole Mellow, in Political Science Quarterly, Fall 2005.

Americans love it when politicians place principle above politics to act for the common good. But pull back the curtain and such displays of bipartisanship are still largely politics, say political scientists Peter Trubowitz, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Nicole Mellow, of Williams College.

Politicians put on bipartisan plumage when political circum­stances call for them to win over centrist or swing voters outside their party. But bipartisanship is far from the usual practice in Congress. The authors’ analysis of roll-call votes since 1889 reveals that it has come in waves, reaching an all-time high in the 91st Congress (1969–71), when lawmakers voted in substantially bipartisan fashion 76 percent of the time. Bipartisanship went downhill after that—to a post–World War II low of 33 percent in the 104th Congress (1995–97), when Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. There was a turn toward greater bipartisanship in con­gressional voting in the late 1990s, and during 2001–02 bipartisan votes reached 58 percent.

Bipartisanship in Congress is more likely to occur when the two parties are competitive nationally and lawmakers have to woo moderate voters, say Trubowitz and Mellow. That happened in the 1960s and 1970s, “when the regional foundation of the New Deal party system eroded and the Republicans became more competitive in the South.” Bipar­tisanship is also a feature of divided government, a consequence, for example, of the president’s having to appeal to moderate members of the opposition party to win con­gres­sional support. That’s what Harry Truman did in the late 1940s to gain backing from the GOP-controlled Congress for his Cold War foreign policy.

The state of the economy also makes a difference. In good times, partisan pressures on lawmakers ease. In hard times, increased pressure from labor on the Democrats and from business on the Repub­licans makes crossing party lines less likely. When the unemployment rate soared during the Great Depression, bipartisanship in Congress plum­meted. And despite possible short-lived “rally round the flag” effects, bipartisanship does not appear to increase at times of international crisis. Today, write the authors, with the parties “increas­ingly regionally polarized,” the economy sluggish, and no end in sight to the war on terrorism, bipartisan­ship’s prospects don’t appear very bright.

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