Bipartisan Support: Why Obama Can't Get It

As fanciful beasts go, bipartisanship is more like a T. Rex than a unicorn—it actually roamed the earth once. Take 1965, for example. Lyndon Johnson had just clobbered Barry Goldwater by 16 million votes in one of the most lopsided elections in U.S. history; Democrats outnumbered Republicans 68 to 32 in the Senate and 295 to 140 in the House. Yet when the jewels of Johnson's "Great Society"—Medicare and Medicaid—came up on the congressional docket, Democrat Wilbur Mills sat down with rookie minority leader Gerald Ford to craft a compromise bill. Six months and more than 500 alterations later, the Social Security Act of 1965 arrived in the Oval Office with the support of 13 Republican senators and 70 of their House colleagues.

If that kind of cooperation sounds as anachronistic as a massive reptile, that's because it is. When (or rather, if) Obama's health-care-reform bill reaches the floor of Congress, he'll be lucky to get a single Republican vote. Predictably, this has attracted a lot of attention in the overheated halls of Washington from liberals who say that Obama should disregard conservative concerns, from Republicans eager to puncture his "postpartisan" aura, and from centrists who reflexively long for some imagined era of interparty comity. There's only one thing all three sides seem to agree on: Obama should care.

He shouldn't—and neither should we. Fact is, the sort of Republicans who voted for Medicare in 1965 no longer exist. Since the early 1970s, Democrats have drifted only slightly leftward. But thanks to realignment and redistricting—the practice of slicing the electoral map into ever more politically homogenous districts—a 2003 Republican House member with a voting record at the median of his party was about 73 percent more conservative than his Nixon-era counterpart. Which means he was about 73 percent less likely to reach across the aisle—no matter who was reaching out from the other side. And the odds are only getting longer. In 2006 the GOP lost most of its remaining moderates: Lincoln Chafee, Rob Simmons, Charlie Bass, Jim Leach. Three years later, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter defected to the Dems.

Today's bipartisanship is nothing like LBJ's. Technically, it still requires a deal between Democrats and Republicans. But once that would have required cooperation among centrists who shared principles, if not party affiliations. Now moderate Dems who, say, believe in universal health care must reach out to conservative Republicans who don't, or at least who cannot buck their party. Any bill relying on "modern" bipartisan support to pass would need to be "vague on key areas and weak on others," as liberal wonk Ezra Klein has written.

Earlier this summer Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, attempted to redefine bipartisanship. "The test … is not just how many Republican votes you have," he told reporters, but how many Republican ideas. "Whether Republicans decide to vote for things that they've promoted will be up to them." This isn't to say that Republicans should roll over and die, or that Obama's plan is somehow perfect, or that cooperation can't check a majority party's inevitable excesses. But compromise and capitulation are two very different things—and you can't raise a dinosaur from the dead.