Opinion writer

The idea of passing a sorely needed infrastructure bill has been raised and shelved so many times since Donald Trump became president that “Infrastructure Week” has become a punch line about this administration’s fecklessness and ineptitude. This is a tale with an important lesson not only for the remaining 20 months of Trump’s term and the four years of his second term, should he win reelection, but the term of any Democratic president, as well. To put it simply, bipartisanship is not in the cards, and the problem is not “Washington.” That doesn’t mean there can’t be productive governing, but only if we stop fooling ourselves about how politics works right now.

Let’s start here:

Business leaders and communities around the country are expressing alarm that the bitter partisan impasse in Washington is paralyzing efforts to revamp the nation’s deteriorating and outdated infrastructure.

As millions of Americans hit the road for the Memorial Day weekend, they traveled across aging bridges, on crumbling roads and through tunnels in dire need of repair — infrastructure that earned a D+ grade in the most recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

At the same time, President Trump, who campaigned in 2016 touting his skills as both a builder and a dealmaker, has been unable to reach a grand bargain with Congress, further dimming hopes that upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges and tunnels will bypass the capital’s infamous gridlock anytime soon.

Infrastructure is an important issue in itself, but this is really about the larger question of legislating and governing.

It’s not that Democrats and Republicans won’t ever be able to pass a bipartisan bill on anything; in October, Congress passed a bill to address the opioid epidemic, for instance. But whenever a bill touches on any of the differences in priorities or values that distinguish Democrats from Republicans, there will be little or no realistic chance of agreement.

We often talk about that problem as though it had nothing to do with sincere beliefs about substance and just involved petty squabbling. If that were true, it wouldn’t be hard to solve. But it goes much deeper than that.

Although infrastructure might seem like something the parties could agree on, it brings up just enough of those value differences to make the divide difficult to cross. In simple terms, Democrats want to build infrastructure by building infrastructure, while Republicans want to mostly provide tax incentives to private corporations so they’ll build infrastructure from which those private entities can profit. (I explained in greater detail here.)

So, why didn’t Republicans just pass an infrastructure bill to their liking during the first two years of the Trump presidency, when they controlled both houses of Congress? Apparently, they just didn’t care enough about it to forge an agreement among themselves. It would have been possible had they wanted it badly enough, or had Trump wanted it enough to force them to do it. But he didn’t.

That points to a key factor in how governing works these days: The Republican agenda has gotten quite narrow, and it contains almost nothing that’s affirmative in any way. Republicans want to dismantle regulations on the environment and labor rights. They want to take health insurance away from as many people as they can. They want to attack abortion rights and make life more miserable for transgender Americans. And, of course, a giant meteor could be headed to destroy the Earth in 48 hours and they’d try to force through one more tax cut for the wealthy and corporations before we’re all vaporized.

But in terms of actually doing anything positive, they’re not really interested.

Meanwhile, Democrats have a long list of ambitious things they’d like to do: achieving universal health coverage, expanding pre-K, fighting climate change, guaranteeing voting rights, making college affordable, raising the minimum wage — but Republicans are opposed to all of it.

Which isn’t surprising, because the two parties represent fundamentally different value systems. Yet we keep telling ourselves that with enough openness and good will, we can make those value differences fade away and come up with solutions to our problems.

Unfortunately, politicians do a great deal to mislead voters about how politics works. Every election, candidates for the House and Senate tell voters that the problem is this thing called Washington, whose dysfunctions can be cured with the proper kick in the keister. And I, the candidate says, am just the person to do it, to change Washington into what it ought to be. Why? Not because I have policy expertise or relevant experience; those things don’t matter. No, it’s because I have common sense, and I know how to get things done.

Thinking about this issue, I went back and looked at something I wrote just after the 2014 midterm elections, when Republicans took control of the Senate. It began this this way:

There are two phrases that have been on everyone’s lips in Washington since Tuesday night. Republicans now need to “show they can govern,” because everyone wants to “get things done.” Republican leaders, the New York Times tells us, are eager to “demonstrate that they can get things done.” President Obama has expressed optimism that GOP leaders want to “find some common ground,” adding that “we want to get things done.” Vice President Joe Biden opined that Republicans are “going to choose to get things done.”

We know what happened next: Republicans continued with the same strategy of obstruction that was so effective for them in the previous six years, and two years later they won the White House.

The reality is that we’re in an era when, unless there’s unified government, not much is going to get done, at least in terms of legislation. That’s not because there’s something wrong with Washington; it’s because the two parties have fundamentally different ideas about what we ought to do.

Which means that, as they try to win back the White House and plan what to do with it if they succeed, Democrats don’t need to devise a strategy to persuade Republicans to join with them in a new era of bipartisan governing. They need a strategy to win full control of Congress, then a strategy to keep their members together to pass their agenda. If they manage that, nobody will complain that Washington can’t get anything done.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Democrats need to pick up this trait. Republicans need to nix it.

Paul Waldman: The ‘electability’ claim is swallowing up the Democratic primaries. But it’s nonsense.

James Downie: Why are Democratic leaders still foot-dragging on impeachment hearings?

Paul Waldman: On abortion rights, time for Democrats to go on offense

Megan McArdle: When Washington abandoned policymaking, it gave up on trying to improve people’s lives