Is bipartisanship marketable?

Longtime party members and newer social conservatives struggle for the future of the Republican Party

Analysts say voters must take some responsibility for political gridlock because of their support of inflexible, dogmatic candidates.

Analysts say voters must take some responsibility for political gridlock because of their support of inflexible, dogmatic candidates.

RN&R file photo

For years, Republican Sue Wagner wanted to run for Congress. As she rose through the Nevada Assembly to the Senate and then through four years as lieutenant governor, she kept an eye out for the opportunity. In 1995, longtime U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich announced she would retire after seven terms in the House. It was Wagner’s chance.

But in January 1996, Wagner said she would not run because politics in general and Congress in particular had become too extreme and uncivilized.

For years, political leaders like state attorney general and Republican state chair Brian McKay had been warning that “the pool of available candidates” was shrinking, but this was a powerful demonstration of that abstraction. A popular, experienced veteran official with a wide following and appeal in both parties was bowing out of politics.

It wasn’t the last time, though it usually happens in less dramatic fashion. Usually the public never knows who they are missing. Candidates just quietly decide against running, and other candidates take their places.

And those other candidates are frequently far more extreme in their outlooks, approaching opposition figures as enemies rather than as adversaries, reluctant to cooperate with those enemies or to compromise on issues. The moderate candidates are usually the ones who can’t stomach the snake pit politics has become.

Last year, for a change, the issue of bipartisanship became a major campaign issue, with candidates from the presidency to state legislatures promising to change their ways. Has it happened? Wagner, for one, doesn’t think so.

“No, I don’t, because all you have to do is look at the votes being cast in Congress,” she said. “Nobody’s listening to each other, Republican or Democrat.”

She points to issues like the stimulus plan.

“Three Republicans voted for stimulus, two of them from my state.”

This is a reference to Maine, the state where Wagner was born and raised. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe provided two of the three GOP votes cast for the federal stimulus plan. Otherwise, it was a party-line vote.

“That’s the kind of Republican I am, have been, will be,” Wagner said, referring to the two Maine senators.

Wagner pointed to other such votes. After Judiciary Committee hearings that gave Sonia Sotomayor a clean bill of health, she received exactly one GOP vote on the committee, from Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.

While Democrats and Republicans can both be faulted for shunning working together, the GOP has a special problem—a large segment of social conservative Republicans who actually oppose bipartisan cooperation and accuse lawmakers of selling out by compromising, something that infrequently happens to Democrats. A GOP legislator who works too closely with Democrats risks being demonized by many in his or her own party.

Some leading Republicans have themselves become fed up with social conservatives who criticize veteran GOP leaders as RINOs—Republicans in name only.

“Sen. [Max] Baucus and I are trying to work in a bipartisan way to get something that meets the president’s goals and something that bends the inflation index downward,” Iowa GOP Sen. Grassley said on National Public Radio of efforts to draft a health care bill.

“I think that anything that’s politically motivated when you’re dealing with the life or death situation of every American—and that’s what health care is all about—and you’re restructuring one-sixth of the economy, you ought to be thinking about what you’re doing right for the country, and not just what’s right for your political party.”

He was responding to criticism from fellow Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.

On one interview program, Colin Powell talked about the way some Republicans are afraid to stand up to social conservatives like Rush Limbaugh.

“The problem I’m having with the party right now is that when he [Limbaugh] says something that I consider to be completely outrageous, and I respond to it, I would like to see other members of the party do likewise, but they don’t,” Powell said.

Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio told a Columbus newspaper he thinks the harsh stances of social conservatives like Sen. James DeMint of South Carolina—who has spoken publicly about trying to “break” President Obama—are to blame for the party’s downfall. This prompted a conservative activist in his home state, Gerard Valentino, to call Voinovich a RINO—and his fellow GOP senators who agreed with him did not pitch in with their agreement.

But officeholders and other analysts also say the public is often at fault, responding more to emotionally loaded slogans than to nuanced discussions of issues.

“People always say they want us to work together, but they also go for guys like Bob Beers over Ray Rawson,” said one GOP Nevada legislator.

This was a reference to the 2004 Republican primary election between incumbent Clark County Sen. Ray Rawson and Bob Beers, who was trying to move up from the Assembly. Rawson had a good working relationship with most members of both parties in the GOP-led Senate. Beers worked only with his ideological twins in the Assembly, which meant very few of the majority Democrats and not even all of the minority Republicans. But in a campaign, Rawson’s temperate rhetoric had no chance against the single-issue red meat (“No taxes”) Beers gave the voters, and Beers won. The Senate moved a little further away from being civil and functional. In the 2008 election, when bipartisanship turned out to be an important issue, the lack of personages like Rawson hurt the Republicans, who lost their Senate majority.

If one candidate talks temperately about issues, and the other candidate uses slogans like “No new taxes,” who’s likely to win? Is bipartisan cooperation even salable, given the public’s frequent embrace of polarizing candidates?

“If you vote for conservative Republicans, and they run on a set of policies that are staunchly conservative Republican, you in essence have set up a situation where they’re not going to be looking for any middle ground,” said Nevada political scientist Fred Lokken. “And in essence, candidates who have run on moderate agendas have been less successful than those who have promoted either a very liberal or a very conservative agenda. And that’s where voters are causing part of the problem.”

He also said that on issues like health care, Democrats have contributed to gridlock by trying to placate their own blue dogs instead of reaching out to moderate Republicans.

Some observers say Republicans are frequently reluctant to forswear their advantage over Democrats, who are generally thought unskilled at spinning issues their way, as with the current national debate on health care.

Then there’s the role of journalism, which over the years has become less politically savvy and more interested in pitting officials against each other, dramatic conflict being better for circulation than cooperation.

Journalists usually characterize differences of opinion on legitimate issues as “mudslinging,” as when KLAS News in Las Vegas used that term on Democratic candidates for governor Jim Gibson and Dina Titus because of their disagreements on legislative pensions, growth, utility regulation and taxes.

And there is little understanding in newsrooms of the way journalism itself, with its taste for polarization, has made politics an ordeal, driving good candidates out.

Wagner was given a firsthand demonstration when she bowed out of the House race in 1996. The Reno Gazette-Journal responded with an editorial suggesting she was a coward: “The moderates slink off the stage without even putting up a fight.”