President Obama doesn’t attend Nancy Reagan’s funeral and Republicans attack him as partisan, though recent presidents of both parties have skipped the funerals of first ladies. GOP senators, meanwhile, say they won’t even consider Obama’s nominee to succeed the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whoever it is, and Democrats cry foul – even though they’ve suggested in the past that new justices shouldn’t be confirmed in election years.
These are but a few recent examples of the partisanship that leaves Americans disheartened and disaffected with Washington. Confidence in government rests at historically low levels and, in one presidential race after another, many voters gravitate to avowed non-politicians (Ross Perot, Herman Cain, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and, of course, Donald Trump) who can save the day because he or she hasn’t imbibed the poison of government service.
If my conversations with politicos and non-politicos alike are any indication, however, public dismay rests on two myths regarding our current bout of partisanship — that it’s never been worse, and that it leaves us unable to accomplish anything.
It’s undeniable that Washington has grown more partisan in recent years. Democratic and Republican lawmakers spend less time socializing when they’re in Washington, and they leave each week as soon as possible for fear that voters back home will think they’re ignoring them. Cable TV, the web, and social media nourish partisanship further by enabling ideologically-charged voters to read, hear, and see only what reinforces their views — and those voters then pressure their leaders to represent only those views in Washington.
Partisanship, however, ebbs and flows over the course of decades, and this is hardly Washington’s most partisan time — not by a long shot. Nor must partisanship mean governmental paralysis. A look back at the very bitter yet historically productive late 1940s, for instance, can reassure us that all is not lost.
Do you think today’s partisan rhetoric is harsh, strident, and unbecoming? In 1946, Republican National Chairman Carroll Reece called that year’s congressional elections a “fight basically between communism and Republicanism.” Two years later, President Truman compared his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, to Hitler by painting him as a tool of fascist interests that steered GOP policy.
Do you think the two parties stand far apart on policy issues today? In the late 1940s, Truman wanted to cement Roosevelt’s New Deal and extend government’s domestic reach further, while Republicans won full control of Congress in 1946 after pledging to reverse course and cut taxes and spending by 20%.
And yet, while battling fiercely over domestic issues, the two parties came together in historic fashion over foreign affairs. Truman built a strong partnership with Arthur Vandenberg, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Republican, who rallied his GOP colleagues to help Truman build the architecture of the free world.
Through their leadership, the United States spearheaded the birth of a United Nations to replace the ineffective League of Nations; pledged through the Truman Doctrine to defend freedom from Communist threat virtually anywhere in the world; rescued Western Europe’s economy through the Marshall Plan; and committed through NATO to defend Western Europe if the Soviets attacked.
To be clear, Truman and Vandenberg didn’t forswear politics. In 1948, a campaigning Truman lambasted the Republican Party and the “do-nothing Congress” it controlled. (That would be the same Congress — the 80th — that implemented the Truman Doctrine by aiding Greece and Turkey, enacted the Marshall Plan, and laid important groundwork for NATO.) Vandenberg, meanwhile, sought a Dewey triumph so he could work with a Republican president.
But at a bitterly partisan time, Truman and Vandenberg never lost sight of the big picture, which was Soviet expansionism after World War II and its threat to Western Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.
Partisanship and policymaking are not incompatible. Our parties have always fought fiercely, and often viciously, even at moments of dire challenge at home and abroad. But that hasn’t prevented our relentless progress for more than two centuries — economic growth, expanded civil rights, victory in world war, and rise to global leadership.
Partisanship is as American as apple pie, and so is our ability to overcome it when the urgency presents itself.
Lawrence J. Haas, a former Clinton White House official, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World. Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.