This bears emphasizing: Like this publication, I’m nonpartisan. I’ve never been a team colors kind of guy — unless those colors are Kelly green. But calling out and seeking reasonable alternatives to Trumpism — the rise of values that advance autocratic rule, deny election results and celebrate meanness — is what passes for objectivity in these troubled times.
That’s why it was a good sign that some 89 of 94 election-deniers lost at the polls last month. Yes, they happened to be Republicans. More important, in their allergy to truth, hostility to pluralism, and just plain lack of good-naturedness, they represented anti-American values.
If you were buoyed by the midterms, there may be another example on the horizon that the nation’s Trumpist fever dream is breaking. Admittedly, this might be a fantasy, but, in the unlikely event it happens, it could save the body politic and return us to some sense of comity.
You don’t have to agree 100 percent with someone in order to work together with them where there is common ground.
I’m talking about the battle for Speaker of the House. Is it possible that a deal could be struck in the coming days for a bipartisan or consensus leadership compromise, in which Democrats vote for a moderate, non-Trumpist Republican for the top post, and a handful of courageous Republicans go along for the ride, leaving the rabid MAGA crowd on the sidelines?
Yes, it’s a long shot in an institution long mired in dysfunction. But, as we’ll see, it has its precedents. And if it were to happen, it could represent a game-changing signal that we’re finally coming out of our Trumpist fever dream.
Here’s the background: Longtime House Minority Leader Republican Kevin McCarthy is fighting for the gig, and Donald Trump is feverishly making calls on his behalf. But, so far, McCarthy doesn’t have the votes — and the vote is on Tuesday, January 3. In the new Congress, House Republicans will hold a slim 222 seats to 212 for Democrats, and McCarthy needs 218 votes to secure the gavel.
He is short of that because five wackos from the House’s MAGA-dominated Freedom Caucus (like Matt Gaetz, taking a break from hanging out with young girls) have said in no uncertain terms that they won’t vote for him. In addition, there are likely 15 to 20 other “Never Kevin” votes in the Republican caucus, most of which appear to be motivated by personal animus.
In recent days, speculation has risen that Republican Steve Scalise is emerging as a McCarthy alternative. But Scalise has at least publicly demurred, and it appears McCarthy is dead-set on taking the fight to a floor vote. Anything can happen.
Could there possibly be … consensus?
Which brings us to our consensus scenario, starring Bucks County Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, who has been ranked for three straight years as the most bipartisan member of the House by the The Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. Their annual bipartisan index measures how often a member of Congress introduces bills that attract co-sponsors from the opposition party, and how often they in turn co-sponsor bills introduced from across the aisle.
Progressives tend to deride Fitzpatrick, because he didn’t vote to impeach Trump and he voted against establishing the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, even after referring to January 6 as a “coup attempt.”
But therein lies both the problem and a possible solution moving forward: You don’t have to agree 100 percent with someone in order to work together with them where there is common ground. That’s what Fitzpatrick’s CV shows time and again, at a time when, as Pew has documented, Congress is more polarized than ever.
“Bipartisanship is a beautiful thing,” former Rep. Dent says. “If we want progress, we need workable, sustainable policies. And that only happens with wide consensus that grows out of bipartisan support.”
Fitzpatrick, if not a profile in courage, is at least a maverick. He co-chairs the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, which consists of 56 members — half Dems, and half Rs —who are committed to finding “common sense solutions to many of the country’s toughest challenges.” And it has found such common ground on issues ranging from gun violence to infrastructure to criminal justice reform.
If the alternative is McCarthy (or even Scalise) and a future filled with hearings into Hunter Biden’s laptop and jingoistic refrains about border security rather than the hard work of bipartisan immigration reform (where’s George W. Bush when you need him?), why wouldn’t Democrats seek to strike a deal with someone like Fitzpatrick for Speaker, which would resurrect bipartisanship and could likely be the death knell for Trumpism?
Would enough progressives go along with it in order to get to 218 votes? Would AOC vote for a reasonable, sane Republican as Speaker, or would she, to borrow the common political parlance, “prefer the issue” to actual solutions? Will moderate Republicans risk bringing on a primary challenge by defying the will of the MAGA vocal minority?
These are knotty issues, but the scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. “It’s not at all probable, but not crazy, and Brian would be the guy,” says former Congressman-turned-CNN talking head Charlie Dent, who represented the Lehigh Valley in Congress for 13 years, steadfastly stood up to Trump and was his caucus’ last pro-choice member.
In fact, Dent has some experience in this very scenario. Back in 2015, when John Boehner had been ousted as Speaker by the party’s far right and Paul Ryan was declining to take the job, a group of moderate Democrats approached Dent about running for the post with their support. In return, they wanted three things: Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, LGBTQ anti-discrimination legislation, and background checks on firearms.
“I was in favor of all those things, so I said, fine,” Dent recalls. “I couldn’t guarantee them an outcome, but I could promise them a vote, provided the Speaker controlled the Rules Committee.” That’s about as far as those conversations went, because Ryan reversed himself and, much to his later chagrin, took on the position.
Bipartisanship making a (faint) comeback
Fast forward to today, where, dare I say it, bipartisanship is making the faint stirrings of a comeback. On issues, President Biden has been far more adept at picking off Republican support here and there for many of his big initiatives than either of his last two predecessors: Infrastructure, gun violence, the CHIPS Act, toxic burn pits legislation, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and the recent Respect for Marriage Act, codifying the right to same-sex marriage, with 47 Republican votes in the House.
Meantime, in Alaska, nine Democrats and eight Republicans just formed a bipartisan governing majority in the state Senate, relegating three MAGA Republicans to the minority. That’s largely because Alaska has ranked-choice voting (bye-bye, Sarah Palin), but it says something about what voters really want and the degree to which politicians will follow their lead.
Only 25 percent of your fellow Americans self-define as even “liberal.” It’s a big world out there, and if you really want to get stuff done that impacts real people’s lives, you’d better be open to the possibility that not everyone agrees with you.
Here in Pennsylvania, it was not so long ago that none other than Josh Shapiro, then a young House reformer, was instrumental in a deal that elected Republican Dennis O’Brien Speaker of the House with mostly Democratic support. The details of that arrangement — like O’Brien’s pledge to not raise money for lawmakers of either party and to hire staff from both sides of the aisle — could be used to inform a congressional meeting of the minds today.
I know what my progressive friends are thinking, because they’ve said it to me: You’re stuck in the past; the days of significant support from both parties for sweeping initiatives like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Medicare in 1965, not to mention Pres. Harry Truman’s nomination of a Republican to the Supreme Court as an olive branch not long after FDR’s court-packing attempt, are over. Why, after all, does bipartisanship even matter?
Well, for one, because only 25 percent of your fellow Americans self-define as even “liberal.” It’s a big world out there, and if you really want to get stuff done that impacts real people’s lives, you’d better be open to the possibility that not everyone agrees with you.
“Bipartisanship is a beautiful thing,” former Rep. Dent tells me, and you can almost hear him choking up. “Because partisan bills are subject to never-ending political fights. If we want progress, we need workable, sustainable policies. And that only happens with wide consensus that grows out of bipartisan support.”
Dent, Fitzpatrick … Bono?
He’s right, and I’ll even go him one better. Bipartisan problem-solving is the true populism, the arena where E pluribus unum becomes more than a mere slogan on currency. It’s the systemic manifestation of the 20th Century Communitarian philosophy — that politics is a push and pull between rights and responsibilities, and we only get that fraught balance right when we’re all at the problem-solving table together.
At its height, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a young candidate for president based a presidential campaign on its precepts and largely spoke to Democrats, Republicans and Independents with policies adhering to his “New Covenant” refrain of “reciprocal obligation” as the moral basis for progressivism. Bill Clinton’s personal foibles would come to overshadow what was at the time a radical reordering of political alignment.
Now comes, straight out of those times, Bono’s new book, Surrender, with tales of his own growth from activist to bipartisan consensus-builder. He’s worked with George W. Bush and Teddy Kennedy, and sung the praises of both Nancy Pelosi and Steve Scalise — all in pursuit of alleviating poverty through ONE, the foundation he co-founded. Bono is a reminder that maybe bipartisanship can be seen as cool.
After all, he wrote the theme song for such communitarian cooperation in 1991, One:
It’s one love
We get to share it
It leaves you baby
If you don’t care for it …
With each other
I’m not exactly saying that Charlie Dent or Brian Fitzpatrick are, uh, Bono. But they’re on to something: Maybe working together without regard to ideology and knee-jerk power-grabbing can become the new idealism. That would require an armistice in the culture wars and getting serious about listening to one another.
Does a consensus Speaker get us there? Hell if I know. But I know that, in addition to striking a blow against Trumpism, it would change the narrative, and that alone couldn’t hurt.
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