Keep Crossing The Lines

By David Boren
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

History demonstrates that bipartisanship is not an impractical, romantic notion. But it doesn't happen automatically: It requires support and structure. President Obama should remember that tonight, when he addresses Congress and the nation, and more broadly as his administration goes forward.

Many have been urging the president to give up on his efforts to work across party lines. Those people forget that bipartisanship has been critical to our nation's success. The Marshall Plan and the doctrine of containment that served as a consistent blueprint for victory in the Cold War would not have been possible without bipartisan cooperation. Major progress in civil rights was the result of bipartisan efforts.

When I went to the U.S. Senate in 1979, a dozen of the new senators, an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, decided to meet often. With our spouses we gathered regularly for informal dinners at each other's homes. We became friends. Friends find ways to work together. Today, though, new members of Congress rarely get to know members of the other party.

In the early part of the 20th century, party caucuses seldom met in the Senate. By the 1950s they began meeting monthly; by the 1970s they met weekly and now sometimes meet even more often. Usually, the agenda is finding ways to score points on the other party.

Partisan agendas have crowded out the national interest, and partisanship has been institutionalized. In Washington today, there are no offsetting forces to promote bipartisanship.

If President Obama wants to realize his goal of revitalizing bipartisanship, he must help to create these forces.

This will require patience. Excessive partisanship cannot be displaced overnight. To start, the president should immediately create four or five small bipartisan working groups of key members of Congress and members of the Cabinet. There could be, for example, a working group on the economy and another on national security. Obama himself should join them as often as possible.

It is important that such groups meet regularly so that personal bonds are strengthened and working relationships are established. These groups would help dilute the partisanship of party caucuses and help prevent party leaders from being held captive by the most extreme elements of their constituencies. While the president meets regularly with party leaders, it would be a mistake for him to use them as his main instrument of communication with other members of Congress.

Governing requires the president to devote large amounts of time to personal negotiations with key members of Congress. The kind of personal involvement required of a president is symbolized by photographs of President Lyndon Johnson, who not infrequently was seen with his arm extended around a senator, effectively holding him captive, while he whispered a proposal to get the senator's vote. No White House staffer or Cabinet member can be as successful as the president in creating bipartisan solutions in small-group settings or sometimes even in one-on-one meetings.

Yes, there may be times of crisis when the president is forced to act urgently with the support of only his party. But giving up on the revitalization of bipartisanship as a major goal would undermine our future as a nation.

Members of Congress also have a responsibility to enhance bipartisanship. Lawmakers, especially the moderates in each party, should create a "bipartisan caucus." Those who want to work for bipartisan approaches in the House or Senate should make efforts to get together regularly. Participation, of course, may shift, depending on the issue. But senators of centrist beliefs often held such meetings in the past.

Congress should also bring back what was known as the "Mansfield rule"; it held that a senator should not campaign against a sitting member of the other party. When members of Congress campaign against each other, working together after the election becomes even more difficult.

Throughout 2008, poll after poll indicated that the American people were fed up with partisan bickering. Eighty percent of respondents to one Zogby survey felt that it was very important for the next president to be able to unite the country. Another poll found that 83 percent of the public believed that the nation was so polarized between Democrats and Republicans that Washington could not make progress on solving major problems. To rebuild the belief of Americans in their own government and to create an environment of trust that is needed to restore economic stability, we must first rebuild bipartisan cooperation.

Building unity across the aisle will take more than visits to caucuses of both parties. President Obama must find ways to institutionalize bipartisanship. By continuing this quest, he will help give us a future worthy of our past.

The writer is president of the University of Oklahoma. He served as a Democratic U.S. senator from Oklahoma from 1979 to 1994.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company