Bipartisan victories in Congress are a foundation for change
Something good is happening in Washington D.C.
Members of Congress have briefly suspended their vicious personal combat and have come together to address two of the greatest crises of our time, not as Republicans or Democrats but as Americans.
Last week, a bipartisan negotiating team of U.S. senators announced an agreement on a framework for a significant package of gun safety legislation that appears likely to be passed into law.
On May 19, the Senate passed a $40 billion emergency aid package for Ukraine by an overwhelmingly bipartisan 86 to 11 vote. Now, with the Ukraine war in its fourth month, lawmakers in both parties are backing a broad consensus approach to the crisis and showing striking unity in the face of a common enemy.
As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) stated, “The gravity of this moment calls for Congress to speak with one voice.”
It has happened before — bipartisanship has periodically blossomed at key moments throughout American history.
In the wake of post-World War II Soviet repression in conquered East European nations, the formerly isolationist Republican U.S. senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee joined forces with Democratic President Harry S. Truman to persuade Congress to support the formation of NATO and the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe. It was Vandenberg who popularized the idea that partisan politics should stop “at the water’s edge,” and his support and that of many Republicans was crucial to the enduring success of these post-war initiatives. Similarly, U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control agreements forged by presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan enjoyed wide support from members of both parties.
Major bipartisan achievements have occurred in domestic affairs too, such as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and a series of joint victories later engineered by the unlikely team of conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and liberal Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) in the 1990s. They include the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. In 2018, Hatch joined Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and lawmakers from both parties to pass the STOP School Violence Act, a measure that issues grants to school violence prevention programs around the country. Incredibly, that law was praised by both Sandy Hook Promise and the National Rifle Association.
Bipartisanship is no guarantee of wisdom — the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan debacles were joint Democratic and Republican affairs. Costly bipartisan federal attempts to improve the nation’s childhood education system over the last 20 years have largely failed.
But the tragedy in Ukraine, and the slaughter of innocents in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Tulsa remind us that the enemy is not us. The real enemy is not our fellow law-abiding citizens, or Republicans or Democrats, or imagined freedom-hating American Marxists or American fascists.
The most dangerous adversaries confronting America and the world today are ignorance, dictatorship, disinformation, nationalistic hatred and nuclear proliferation, as well as hunger, terrorism, discrimination and violence itself. They remind us that while there are times for partisanship, this is not one of them.
Right now, the nation cries out for constructive, compassionate, creative and bipartisan action on a host of issues, including immigration, infrastructure, education, energy, poverty and health care.
Moments like this can remind us of the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln at his first inaugural address: “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
One such angel is the spirit of bipartisanship, of Democrats and Republicans clashing, negotiating and acting together for the common good, a spirit which can move the nation not to the right or to the left, but forward and higher to a better future.
Now is the time for American voters and the American media to start rewarding politicians based not on how well they tear down their opponents, but on how powerfully they can channel the spirits of Lincoln and our nation’s angels to build a better and stronger country, a society that can protect and nourish our children and inspire the world.
William Doyle is a Fulbright Scholar writing on politics, history and education and the author of the forthcoming book, “Titan of the Senate: Orrin Hatch and the Once and Future Golden Age of Bipartisanship.” being published in September by Center Street Books.
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