Bipartisanship is a lot like swimming.
Let me tell you what I mean:Yeah, I know that sounds nuts. But, having spent at least 10 of my formative years as a competitive swimmer/swim instructor and the better part of the last decade helping a member of Congress craft/communicate bipartisan agreements, I know a little something about both.
There is more than one way to swim. There’s backstroke, breaststroke, doggy paddle, kicking, sculling and even synchronized swimming. You can swim for fun at the local lake, competitively in an Olympic-sized pool or ambitiously across the English Channel.
But, while there are many ways to be a swimmer, there is one thing that separates the people who can swim from the people who can’t. That’s the ability to float. Because, the bottom line is: if you can’t float, you can’t swim.
With me so far?
Well, there is something similar to be said about bipartisanship.
There is more than one way to be bipartisan. Despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t have to be about compromise. Sure, there are occasions when the only way to reach an agreement is to give ground on something that is important to you. But, sometimes, bipartisanship can just mean saying something nice about someone on the other side of the aisle. There are also issues where Democrats and Republicans (gasp) agree and opportunities to negotiate agreements where both sides get what they want. (My grad school negotiating professor called it “expanding the pie.”) And, of course, there are issues that don’t break down along party lines. (Anyone remember SOPA?)
That said, while you don’t have to be able to float to be bipartisan, you can’t be bipartisan if you aren’t willing to let the other side look good. In fact, bipartisanship doesn’t just require you to “let” the other side look good, it requires you to “help” the other side look good. If you can’t bring yourself to help the other side look good, you are never going to reach a bipartisan agreement. (Think of it like trying to swim across the English Channel when you don’t know how to float. You might be in search of glory, but you’re just going to end up flailing around a lot until you give up or drown.)
For the record, this is why party leadership sucks at bipartisanship.
Because, let’s face it, if there is one thing that Democratic and Republican leadership has in common, it’s how much they love making the other party look bad. In fact, reading their press releases leaves you with the impression that they are incapable of spelling out their respective party’s policy positions without trying to make the other party look bad. (You don’t have to take my word for it, you can read them yourself: here,here, here and here.)
In case you didn’t know, party leadership (I’m referring to the Speaker of the House and the minority and majority leaders in both the House and Senate) are the ones largely responsible for policy negotiations. At least when it comes to big policy negotiations like Health Reform and the Sequester. Party leaders not only determine what gets voted on, what amendments get offered, and who gets to speak during floor debates, they take the lead role in communicating policies to the outside world. Their press releases are the first ones out of the gate. Their press conferences are the ones that receive the most coverage and their offices distribute daily talking points directing caucus member how best to frame debates.
Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the fact that party leaders are partisan. (It would be hard to expect them not to be.) But, if you are trying to get a bipartisan agreement, do you really want the lead negotiators to be the folks most prized for their mastery of procedural roadblocks, fundraising prowess and ability to deliver cutting, partisan talking points? (Party leaders don’t tend to be elected for their ability to find common ground.)
Does this mean that party leaders shouldn’t lead policy negotiations?
Not necessarily. If you like Congressional negotiations that don’t go anywhere and make everyone look bad, then you’re probably happy with the job leadership is doing. Personally, I would prefer it if our nation’s policies were written and negotiated by people who cared more about the policies themselves than the politics. But, maybe there is a middle way.
What if, for the sake of argument, we barred elected officials and their staff from using their official positions to engage in partisan activities? If Members of Congress could no longer spend their time giving us reasons to vote against the other party, is it possible that they might start giving us reasons to vote FOR them? Imagine how much more productive Congress might be if the legislative process could no longer be co-opted to force politically embarrassing votes. If both sides could no longer spend their time in office attacking each, might they find common ground? Get things done? Come up with bold solutions to our nation’s problems?
(It’s not a completely far-fetched idea. It is already against the law to use “official resources” [read: anything paid for with taxpayer funds] to conduct campaign activities. Given that Members of Congress and their staff are paid with taxpayer funds, couldn’t we find a way to consider them “official resources” too?)
I know. I know. Members of Congress have to attack each other because legislative votes are won the same way that elections are won: by maximizing the votes for your side and minimizing the votes for your opponent. (Plus, how else is the American people supposed to figure out how misguided the other party is if they don’t tell them?)
But, there’s one problem with that. As long as both parties go into negotiations determined to make each other look bad, they have about as much chance of reaching a meaningful bipartisan agreement as a non-floater has of beating Michael Phelps across the pool. And, given that our country is facing some pretty big problems, aren’t we at some point going to need Congress to do something other than make itself look bad?
If only the Y offered lessons in bipartisanship.