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Opinion Americans say they want bipartisanship. They’re wrong.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Bipartisanship: so precious, yet so elusive in politics today. Why can’t we all just roll up our sleeves and solve the country’s problems together? Wouldn’t that be better?

People seem to think so. According to a new Monmouth University poll, the American public not only desires bipartisanship, it’s weirdly optimistic that it might break out in Washington.

But they’re wrong on both counts. Bipartisanship isn’t going to happen, and it isn’t something they should want anyway.

Here’s what the poll found:

Most Americans (71%) would rather see Republicans in Congress find ways to work together with Biden than to focus on keeping Biden in check (25%). The desire for bipartisan cooperation is higher than it was just after the November election (62%), and includes 41% of Republicans (up from 28% in November) as well as 70% of independents (68%) and 94% of Democrats (92%).
The poll finds that 6 in 10 Americans have at least some confidence that Biden will be able to get Washington to be more cooperative, although just 21% are very confident while 39% are somewhat confident. Still, this is slightly better than in November (13% very and 38% somewhat confident).

Obviously, Democrats would rather see Republicans work with President Biden, because that means bills will pass, governing will occur and Biden will win the bulk of whatever political benefit is to be had from all that productivity. But even many Republicans express a desire for it, since bipartisanship is one of those things that sounds good in the abstract. It’s when you get to the particulars that so often it becomes distasteful.

So maybe it’s time we stopped pretending that bipartisanship is an unalloyed good, an end in itself that all responsible legislators (and presidents) should pursue.

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Unfortunately, we hear that message all the time, from journalists, from commentators and from politicians in both parties. Those who promote it are praised, while those whose eschew it are scolded. When one side wants to rebuke the other for some initiative they don’t like, they say, “Now, now, you’re not being very bipartisan!”

But really, why should we care? Isn’t the result — the content of the legislation and the effects it produces out in the real world — what matters?

Some would respond that in the past, many pieces of important, popular legislation garnered the votes of both Democrats and Republicans, and therefore only bipartisan legislation will wind up being popular and important. Like Medicare, for instance.

But if you asked a hundred Americans what the congressional vote was on Medicare, 99 of them would neither know nor care. They like Medicare because Medicare gives seniors secure health coverage, not because 13 Republicans in the Senate voted for it in 1965.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with bipartisanship per se. If a really good bill gets support from both parties, that’s great — it might even help build some cross-party relationships that could bear fruit on future legislation. But there’s no reason at all to think that having a bill crafted by members from both parties produces better policy.

What it will produce is more centrist policy. Depending on who you are, you might think that’s a good thing. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), for instance, thinks that’s good (he even has a “Bipartisanship” page on his website) both because he is himself a centrist and prefers centrist policies on most things, and also because as a Democrat representing one of the most conservative states in the country, it’s important for him to show his constituents that he isn’t too liberal.

But that’s a matter of his particular ideology and political needs. It would be a mistake to pretend that bipartisanship is ideologically neutral, because it isn’t. If you don’t happen to prefer centrist policies that take a little from column A and a little from column B, there’s nothing about bipartisanship that should appeal to you. Unless the particular bipartisanship in question is one where the other party just joined with your party and didn’t demand much in the way of substantive concessions.

Which, let’s be honest, is the kind of bipartisanship we’d all prefer: I get everything I want, and you support what I wanted so I can say it was bipartisan.

So why do so many people tell pollsters that they favor bipartisanship? In part, it’s what researchers call “social desirability bias,” the tendency of survey respondents to give answers they think will make them look good to the person interviewing them. We all want to sound thoughtful and reasonable, so if someone asks them, “Should the parties work together?,” many people will default to answering, “Oh yes, of course,” whether or not that’s something they really want.

But you know who knows that the public doesn’t really mean it when they say they want bipartisanship? Republicans. They have a keen understanding that for as much time as we in Washington spend debating process questions, the public largely tunes all those arguments out. Only the political junkies pay close attention to what happens as bills are written and debated, and the political junkies have their partisan affiliations fixed in place.

What the rest of the public cares about is results. Is the pandemic over? Did the economy get better? Did I get health coverage? Did they fix the roads in my area?

Do those things, and nobody will care whether it was bipartisan. It’s a lesson Democrats should keep in mind for the next couple of years.

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