Wikipedia says “Bipartisanship is a political situation, usually in the context of a two-party system, in which opposing political parties find common ground through compromise.” There are many politicians that speak of trying to be bipartisan and to govern in that way. But two distinct visions of what that really means came to the forefront last week with the inauguration of Terry McAuliffe as governor of Virginia and Gov. Chris Christie’s troubles in New Jersey. They have both spoken about working across the aisle to solve problems, but it seems what they actually do is quite different.
Democrat McAuliffe ran a campaign on the promise that he would try to work across party lines to find common ground with the Republican members of the legislature. He touted his past efforts with former Gov. Bob McDonnell on a transportation bill and how he worked behind the scenes to get that passed.
During his campaign and at his inauguration he spoke passionately about his own beliefs and was clear in saying that working across party lines would in no way cause him to abandon his principles. He is a strong supporter of a woman’s right to choose and to have control over her own healthcare decisions; and of civil and human rights for the LGBT community. Those principles will clearly put him at odds with many members of the legislature. But he has stated many times that these differences won’t preclude him from working with those who have different ideologies to accomplish needed reforms on a host of other issues. He believes that if people respect their differences they can work together. His cabinet appointments have been inclusive of both parties and diverse in whom is represented. There can be many attacks on McAuliffe for different things but he has a history or working with people of different political persuasions and beliefs. McAuliffe is the type of politician who doesn’t hold grudges and is a businessman who understands the need for accommodation.
Then there is New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie. He also speaks of working across the aisle in a bipartisan way and stood tall with President Obama when trying to get all the federal aid he could for New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. But clearly Christie’s brand of politics is much more confrontational than that of McAuliffe. Christie is an in-your-face politician who believes that waving his finger in the face of, and demeaning constituents who disagree with him, is acceptable behavior. He believes fighting with a former Democratic governor and then taking retribution by taking away his security detail when he doesn’t get what he wants is a way to work across party lines in a bipartisan way. To Christie’s credit it does appear that earning his ire and retribution is occasionally a non-partisan event.
The entire George Washington Bridge traffic fiasco, which some are calling “Bridgegate,” appears to follow a pattern of bullying to get his way and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has suggested that rather than it being a grudge against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee it was retribution against a Democratic legislator who was trying to hold up his judicial nominations. That idea actually makes more sense but it also shows how Christie works against his own statements of wanting to work across the aisle and move toward governing in a bipartisan way.
True bipartisanship requires some respect for your opposition. It requires that you are willing to disagree but to do it agreeably. It requires the kind of relationship that President Ronald Reagan had with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. They didn’t always solve the issues but they had the ability to debate an issue, look for possible compromise and then move on respectfully to the next issue.
Bipartisanship seems to be a lost cause in today’s political climate especially at the federal level. There is a bigger reason for it to work on the state level as state governments need to balance their budgets while the federal government doesn’t. Another reason may be that today so many seats in the House of Representatives have been gerrymandered to ensure one or the other party will win them that there is less need to compromise.
That is a sad state of affairs for the nation.