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An obituary for bipartisanship in Washington

Depressing as it may be, it's worth considering the words of two veterans of the U.S. Senate:

"One difficulty in making the Senate work the way it was intended is that America's electorate is increasingly divided into red and blue states, with lawmakers representing just one color or the other. ... The great challenge is to create a system that gives our elected officials reasons to look past their differences and find common ground if their initial party positions fail to garner sufficient support. In a politically diverse nation, only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good. That is not happening today and, frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future." That's from outgoing U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

"Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform and trade agreements. Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives." That's from outgoing U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana.

Lugar's overwhelming defeat in last week's Indiana primary prompted another round of hand-wringing about the death of bipartisanship and moderation in Congress.

Truth is, Republican Hoosiers had perfectly valid reasons for retiring the elder statesman at age 80 after six terms: He ran a lousy campaign, he essentially gave up his Indiana residency for Washington in the 1970s and lost touch with his constituents. And can you really blame Republicans in a conservative state for choosing a credible, more conservative alternative, Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, to their current senator?

At the same time, Lugar's demise is a chilling reminder of what will be in store only weeks after November's election: a country facing a mountain of critical issues — another debt ceiling debate and the prospect of huge automatic spending cuts and tax increases, and perhaps tens of millions of Americans without health insurance if the Supreme Court decimates the health care overhaul — and a Congress that every day looks evermore incapable of dealing with them.

The country is more polarized than it has been since the Civil War, and Congress looks more dysfunctional than it has been since … ever.

Overwhelmingly choosing Mourdock over Lugar, Hoosiers not only shunned the Beltway establishment but embraced a candidate contemptuous of compromise and reaching across the aisle. To him bipartisanship is "Democrats coming to the Republican point of view." He told the New York Times: "The time for being collegial has passed. It's time for confrontation."

So here we are at a critical point in American history and on the cusp of (another) credit downgrade. And in Washington there's no longer incentive for actually finding solutions and compromise and every incentive to prove ideological purity. Even if it means gridlock when we can least afford it.

Along with Lugar, who used to vote in line with Ronald Reagan more than anyone else in the Senate, we can say goodbye to a host of other so-called moderates occasionally willing to work with the other side: Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Jim Webb of Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, as well as Republican Olympia Snowe, who followed the trend of "moderate" Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. In Utah, former Ted Kennedy pal Orrin Hatch is reinventing himself as an uncompromising tea partier, while moderate Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana are among the most vulnerable incumbents in November.

Today's stark red and blue America geography and/or gerrymandered House districts dictate ideology and electoral performance. More often than not congressional candidates today have to fear a primary challenge on the hard left or right more than a serious general election challenge from the center.

"This is not my father's Republican Party we're dealing with," said former Gov. Charlie Crist, a lifelong Republican who was shunned by his party and then ran unsuccessfully as an independent for the U.S. Senate in 2010. "The primary voter has really gone hard right off the cliff and unless you jump with them, you're not welcome."

The most potent weapon Sen. Marco Rubio used against Crist in 2010 was the photo of Florida's governor briefly embracing President Barack Obama and endorsing the stimulus package. "One of the biggest sins an elected Republican can commit today is to help the president of the United States," said Crist, noting how Lugar was attacked for working with Obama on nuclear proliferation and the auto industry rescue plan. Sen. Rubio, who often derided GOP compromisers in his Senate campaign, now faces a conservative backlash for trying to put together a watered-down "Dream Act" for the children of undocumented immigrants.

There is a reasonable view that presidents should receive at least some deference when they pick Supreme Court justices. Whether Romney or Obama wins in November, we can only wonder how many senators from the opposite party will be willing to risk voting for Supreme Court nominees given the drubbing they are sure to take for ideological impurity.

Partisan polarization is nothing new in modern Washington, beginning with the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings and continuing through the 2000 recount. But it has reached a tipping point today that threatens to make America unable to deal seriously with its biggest problems. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson points to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's hard-edged partisanship as a big part of the problem, as well as the former speaker's call for members to spend more time in their districts and less in Washington. Contact with hometown constituents is valuable, of course, but actually knowing your colleagues in Washington is, too.

"When I first started out, more people lived in Washington and therefore you saw each other and each other's children and each other's families. You knew each person as a friend, rather than just what party they were," Nelson said. "The polarization today is exacerbated by the explosion of technology where birds of a feather can just talk to each other — their own group, their own mind-set — instead of looking at the community interests as a whole."

There are some optimists left. Dan Clifton, a conservative analyst who heads the Washington office of the institutional brokerage firm Strategas, told investors last week at a St. Petersburg forum sponsored by Sabal Trust Co. that he expects a desperately needed congressional fiscal and tax reform plan to be ironed out in 2013. Leaders in Washington, he said, understand the grave stakes today just as they did in 1983, when they made hard choices to save Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes.

Really? Ronald Reagan was president then. It's hard to see Reagan surviving a Republican primary today. Lugar, in his post-defeat manifesto, raised the point eloquently: "Bipartisanship is not the opposite of principle. One can be very conservative or very liberal and still have a bipartisan mind-set," Lugar wrote. "Such a mind-set acknowledges that the other party is also patriotic and may have some good ideas. It acknowledges that national unity is important, and that aggressive partisanship deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas, and depletes the national reserve of goodwill that is critical to our survival in hard times. Certainly this was understood by President Reagan, who worked with Democrats frequently and showed flexibility that would be ridiculed today — from assenting to tax increases in the 1983 Social Security fix, to compromising on landmark tax reform legislation in 1986, to advancing arms control agreements in his second term."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

An obituary for bipartisanship in Washington 05/12/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 4:40pm]

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