Friday, November 16 , 2018, 12:59 am | Fair 48º


Susan Estrich: Don’t Believe Congressional Comity on ‘Date Night’; The Two Parties Are Estranged

This year, for the State of the Union address, Democrats and Republicans (those who can find “dates,” anyway) will be sitting together. It is supposed to be a signal to the nation of bipartisanship — at least the kind that allows people from opposite parties, as we used to do decades ago, to put their differences aside at the end of the day.

Don’t believe it.

This congressional date night is not the beginning of a long-term relationship. It’s a one-night stand.

All it means is that when there is partisan applause (and there will be), it won’t come just from one side of the room.

This is the third year in which the two parties are “dating” for the State of the Union. I don’t know anyone of either party who would suggest that the past two years have seen a rise in bipartisanship.

That doesn’t mean that individual Democrats and Republicans aren’t working together. They are, in critical respects. Democrats in the Senate need a handful of Republicans to avoid a filibuster. Democrats in the House of Representatives need a few dozen Republicans to comfortably pass whatever the Democrats plus a handful pass in the Senate.

So, yes, there are individuals crossing the aisle and creating majorities, but it is precisely because the two parties are not working together that we have this new kind of individual bipartisanship.

As a Democrat, I can say it’s fine with me.

As a firm believer in the two-party system, in civil discourse and political respect, in moderation over extremism, it might not be so fine.

On Fox News last weekend, I was asked about the split in the Republican Party, between ideological true believers and moderate pragmatists — or, if you prefer, between “true Republicans” and “Republicans in Name Only” (a.k.a. RINOs).

When I spent every waking hour in politics, I was definitely a “true Democrat,” and I know all the lines about if you have two Democratic (or Republican) parties, why wouldn’t people want to vote for the real one. I understand the frustration of ideological activists who are asked to support policies they disagree with and people who have given them the back of their hand on the grounds that winning is all that matters. When you’re in the trenches, principles matter — sometimes more than a “victory” for someone who shares only your party affiliation.

But losing is even less fun. What changed on the Democratic side was that even people like me got tired of losing and became more ready to accept a candidate we disagreed with but who could win. It certainly helped that, in cultural terms, Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary — educated on the East Coast, tested on the George McGovern campaign, public interest lawyer-types — seemed far more like the ideologues, at least socially speaking, than most Southern moderates.

But make no mistake: Bill Clinton was one of the founders of the Democratic Leadership Council, which we used to disparagingly call the “White Boys Caucus” because of its stated intent to counter the power of all those other caucuses inside the Democratic Party. And by the time Barack Obama came along, demographics had changed in this country to the point that the middle, which had been moving rightward, was moving leftward again.

Believe me, Mitt Romney would have won in Ronald Reagan’s America. But it’s not Reagan’s America anymore.

I got one or two nasty emails last week when I made those points on Fox and suggested that the only way Republicans are going to achieve power (and win more elections) is if they stop making that circle and firing inward, and recognize that the country has changed. If they don’t, they won’t win.

“Who are you to give advice to Republicans?” one woman demanded. The answer is just this: Been there. Done that. You have to kiss a lot of frogs on your way to the altar. And maybe what Republicans really need right now is not Democratic “dates” but Republican ones.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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