In Congress, the Aisle Has Become an Ideological Line in the Sand

"You gotta do some horse tradin'," says former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, who knew how to work both sides of the aisle to get legislation passed.
"You gotta do some horse tradin'," says former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, who knew how to work both sides of the aisle to get legislation passed. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 2009

The way Bob Dole remembers it, Congress was having a terrible time in the early 1980s trying to fix Social Security. Everything was going in the wrong direction. Bipartisanship proved to be the cure.

"Pat Moynihan and I got together and started to put the egg back together again. We got it done," says the former Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee. Fixing Social Security meant doing painful stuff, like hiking taxes and tweaking the retirement age, Dole says. A lot of people weren't happy.

"We offended everybody, which made it a pretty good bill."

In his familiar, braying voice, the old lawmaker conjures up an era when senators knew how to cross the aisle, slap some backs, exchange secret handshakes, engage in a little horse-tradin' (Dole's phrase) and so on. There is a mournful tone to his voice. Today the bipartisan deal is becoming as rare in Congress as spittoons and snuffboxes.

President Obama came into office vowing to end the old divisions of Washington. That may be his signature failure to date. The divide between the parties has turned into a gulf. There is essentially no middle anymore. If you see a prone body in the Capitol, it belongs to someone who toyed with being a centrist.

With health-care reform, the administration appears to have two options, one of which would involve the support of a single Republican senator, Olympia Snowe. The other option would involve using a parliamentary tactic to circumvent the usual 60-vote minimum for ending the Senate debate and instead ram through a more limited health-care bill with a bare majority, dispensing with the support of conservative Democrats or any of the Republicans. Health-care reform's feeble element of bipartisanship so far -- closed-door negotiations by the "Gang of Six" senators from rural states -- has nearly come to a slammed-finger ending in the town-hall rage of late summer.

Congress-watchers see this not as an aberration but as a long-term trend -- "hyperpartisanship." The parties used to be more eclectic and less ideologically regimented. In the past two decades or so, they've become more philosophically homogeneous -- there are no liberal Republicans to speak of, for example. Party leaders are more prone to crack down on anyone showing signs of apostasy. Buck the party caucus and you'll lose a plum committee assignment or party help with fundraising.

The media are complicit. Cable TV news channels require guests to meet certain standards of stridency. Anyone wishing to express a moderate opinion will be upbraided and mocked. In the publishing world, rants and screeds disguised as books shoot to the top of the bestseller lists. In the era of Keith Olbermann vs. Bill O'Reilly, and Michael Moore vs. Ann Coulter, all the institutional energy is on the extremes.

"Being sober and reasoned in the national interest is often less entertaining than being hyperbolic and accosting the other side," says Jason Grumet, a Democrat who directs the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank that is parked in the lonely middle of the spectrum.

There might be moderates out there, but they don't march. They don't go to town-hall meetings to berate a member of Congress. The people who do go seem to have a tendency to worry about such nonexistent things as "death panels." At least, that's how it looks on TV.

"You gotta rebuild the dormant center," says Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman who was known as a centrist during his decades in the House. When he first showed up in Washington it was a much more collegial and calm environment. "The biggest change in politics from when I came into the Congress in 1965 and today is the intensity of politics. You have a lot of difficult issues out there, you have interest groups out there. They're more sophisticated. They have better means of communication. They're better-financed."

Says Democrat Richard Gephardt, the former House leader: "It's always easier to defeat something than pass something." He adds, "The only way to change any of this is for the public to demand public servants who want to solve problems and want to act in a bipartisan way."

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