In Stacey Abrams new book “While Justice Sleeps,” her fictional president of the United States privately makes a sordid confession: “To maintain the peace, I cater to the far right and cavil to the farther right and pretend to have patience with the weak-willed left. I’ve denounced what I know to be true, all in the name of patriotism and bipartisanship.”
My reaction to this fictional confession was the character hit frighteningly too close to the reality of today’s politics. In the country’s search for bipartisanship the question is, are we really just stuck with political charades and shades of truth when it comes to the gamesmanship of bipartisanship?
I’m old enough to remember days when impending Congressional legislation presented with at least some, if not several, members of opposing parties working through compromise for the benefit of the good, not just an impenetrable wall of partisan defiance in a zero-sum game of my team must win at all costs and your team must lose.
So, what has happened to political leadership in today’s surreal world of political governance? It would appear as though we’ve been infected by a pandemic of partisanship which has metastasized from occasional and benign to life-threatening. And a side effect, I fear, is that the epidemic of partisanship has infected leadership character. One of my favorite quotes attributed to Abraham Lincoln was his reflection on the effects of power. He said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Power and partisanship can be a toxic brew.
I’m anxiously waiting for teams Democrat and Republican to turn in their jerseys for team USA pullovers, where the zero-sum calculations are determined over Russia, China, terrorists and hackers, not each other’s party.
The process of legislating has often been referred to as “sausage making.” It’s hard work. It involves give and take. We’ll give you this, but in return we want that in the next piece of legislation. The end goal being compromise that yields situational improvement for the country, not for a political party or a particular leader.
I’ve made this point before. Everything today seems mutable. Technology seems to be driving our culture and the future. As a nation, we are in clear-cut competition with China and Russia. President Biden was right-on when he said in one of his speeches in Europe this past week that we are at an inflection point in history where our democracy is being challenged by authoritarian leaders who believe that their command economies and political systems are better equipped to deal with the lightening-fast changes of the global 21st century.
I see glimmerings of hope in the search for bipartisanship. The issues have been laid bare. To name a few: Is a 15 percent minimum tax on corporations fair? Should broadband expansion be a part of the building of infrastructure? Is daycare support for families necessary? Is it time to go big to rebuild a new economy as the White House argues to stay competitive with China, or is the cost of the American Rescue Plan too much of a strain on America’s balance sheet? Should previous funds from the Affordable Care Act be part of the spending for the ARP?
The glimmerings of hope are transmitting on two channels. One is the determination of the White House to get something done and the other lies in the work of 10 Republican and Democratic senators who have come up with a five-year, trillion dollar plan to propose to the White House. Compromise is hard work and surely there are edges to this bipartisan plan that still need honing, but herein lies a basis for getting something done.
For those who look to and cherish our historical legacy, it’s worth remembering “The Great Compromise” of 1787 at our Constitutional Convention where, after heated debate and argument, it was agreed that beyond relative population representation, each state would get two senators no matter their size. It makes our wrangling over the American Recovery Plan seem small unless you believe, as the president suggests, that we are at an inflection point in history where democracy as we know it is under serious attack by global authoritarian regimes. It also makes fatuous partisanship politics seem equally small.
One glaring fact that hopefully will drive the president and these bipartisan senators to a workable solution is that public domestic investment, as a share of the economy, has fallen from the halcyon economic days of the 1960s by more than 40 percent. And so… America waits for the next “Great Compromise.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.