Bridging the Partisan DividePrintable Version
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Given the importance of bipartisanship in solving the vast number of crises facing today's policy makers, the Center for National Policy hosted a discussion, "Bridging the Partisan Divide," featuring Thomas Mann, a Senior Fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute, and Norman Ornstein, the director of the Transition to Governing Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Thomas Mann is a chair and senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C, and has authored numerous books on the American government. Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and a weekly contributor to Roll Call Magazine. Both are co-authors of the book, The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, which critically dissects Congress, how it functions, and where it has failed.
Thomas Mann began the discussion by challenging a number of common notions surrounding the nature of bipartisanship. First, Mann contended that the ideological polarization of the parties is real. Congressional polarization is based on structural changes in the American voting landscape, where an increasingly engaged public becomes more firmly associated with a particular viewpoint of issue. Second, that good governance does not necessarily come from a "golden center," representing the main two ideological views. To support this, Mann cited Congressional activity on the recent financial stimulus, where inordinate focus was paid to superficial, "centrist" issues such as earmarks and levels of spending. Third, elections work best when they give a single party a clear and decisive mandate for setting the policy agenda. Elections such as the 1932 and 1980 elections sent a strong signal that "one team is in charge," and established a clear framework both for decisive leadership and responsible opposition. Such a mandate must be tempered, however, with a majority party that is pragmatic and open to different ideas, lest political decisiveness degrade into ideological rigidity.
Mann offered two suggestions to bring the parties closer together. First, he supported a continuation of the Obama administration's policy of engaging the Republican opposition. Not only does such a strategy receive significant public support, but it also gives Obama a way of gaining the allegiance of moderate Republicans who want to legislate, and not simply carry on a permanent opposition campaign. Second, Congress ought to continue its incremental moves towards a "regular order," where issues are solved by negotiation, rather than legislative bullying. Here, he commends Harry Reid for his attempts to engage the Republican opposition, rather than simply muscling in amendments and stifling debate.
Norman Ornstein continued the discussion by arguing that the problem in Washington is not partisanship per se, but a type of partisanship that leaves no room for maneuvering or compromise. Ornstein made the distinction between previous Congressional systems, where opponents were looked on as adversaries who could one day become allies, and the current system where opponents are looked on as enemies, who must be marginalized and defeated at all cost. Ornstein attributes this shift to the regional realignment in American voting patterns that has been growing since the late 1960s, but commends Obama for trying to recreate a Congressional climate that encourages civility and tolerance. Both Republicans and Democrats, however, must heed Obama's call: Republicans should avoid retreating into the "Limbaugh-driven echo chamber" of reflexive opposition to anything the Democrats propose, and Democrats should eschew a "we won, get over it" mentality and include Republicans in the decision-making process. Such flexibility, Ornstein argues, might have resulted in a more effective stimulus package.
Ornstein also offered a number of suggestions to help ease the partisan divide. For instance, Ornstein recommended that Congress enact a traditional five-day workweek, with only one week off per month. Such a plan would force Congressmen to spend significantly more time in DC, and consequently with each other, helping to foster deeper working and personal relationships that will pay off when it comes time to negotiating bills. Also, he recommended the adoption of a British-style question-and-answer period, where the President would field questions from Senators and Congressmen on whatever policy issues they happened to be concerned about. This would not only help to clarify misperceptions about opposing viewpoints, but also work to educate the public about the nuances of various policy proposals.
- The Center for National Policy shares the belief that bipartisanship and cooperation lie at the heart of good policy making. It is CNPs mission to facilitate this through round table events, forums for speeches, and smaller meetings, allowing views from across the spectrum to be heard and understood.