Saturday, March 30, 2019

From the Archives: The Power of Bipartisan Thinking

By Isaiah Thomas
Board of Editors

We read a few days ago that some Democrat from Delaware had thoughts about how to make progress in America:

Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat of Delaware who was part of an unsuccessful 2017 effort to head off a Republican change that eliminated the 60-vote filibuster against Supreme Court nominees, said Democrats instead should focus on passing legislation with Republican help. “The most important, the most significant, the longest pieces of reform in American history have been bipartisan,” Mr. Coons said in an interview. “We need to get back to passing meaningful legislation with bipartisan support.”

To some of the old-timers around here, Sen. Coons's little summary of American history didn't ring quite true.  Is it the case that the most successful progressive legislation was actually the result of compromise between those who wanted it and those who believed, like Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R – Gilead), that the solution for all social ills is making more white babies? Fortunately, we have interns.  And quite a large archive down there in the subbasement next to the old Linotype machines and the classified ad switchboard.  Here's what they found:

The abolition of slavery

A few students of American history may have heard of a bit of historical unpleasantness now called the “Civil War.”  Apparently a number of very fine states concluded that the election of Abraham Lincoln threatened the institution of slavery because Lincoln and his Republicans, although willing to let the atrocity persist in the South, were not especially keen to admit it into the new Western Territories.

In the spirit of bipartisan compromise, the Southern States seceded, started a war against the United States, and prolonged it for over four years.  Six hundred thousand lives later, they lost.  Near the end of that war, Lincoln and his allies recognized that the existence vel non of slavery anywhere in the United States was no longer a matter of bipartisan compromise.  Rather, its abolition should be enshrined in the Constitution, in the 13th Amendment.

What happened?  Our tale of bipartisanship begins in 1864, with the outcome of the Civil War much in doubt, according to The New York Times:

On April 8, the Senate passed the amendment by a vote of 38 to 6. Support came from 30 Republicans, four Democrats, three Unionists, and one Unconditional Unionist. The six votes in opposition came from five Democrats and one Unionist. Both senators from Delaware and Kentucky were among the “nay” votes.

In the vote’s aftermath, a cascade of events conspired to set the stage for the January 1865 showdown in the House. On June 8, the National Union convention renominated Lincoln and called for an amendment abolishing slavery. A week later, after a vitriolic debate, the House came up 13 votes shy of the two-thirds majority necessary for passage. “The Democratic party in the House today,” editorialized The New York Tribune, “deliberately strapped the burden of Slavery on its shoulders for the coming Presidential election.”  . . .

[After Lincoln won the 1864 election,] Approval in the House [came] on Jan. 31, 1865, trail[ing] the amendment’s passage in the Senate on April 8, 1864, by almost 10 months.

So to recapitulate, all it took to abolish slavery was (1) a four year war, (2) the inability of the pro-slavery party (in those days, the Democrats) to prevent the re-election of President Lincoln, and (3) the Reconstruction of the rebellious state governments whose consent to ratification was required.

There wasn't a lot of room for bipartisan compromise, although in defense of Sen. Coons, it should be pointed out that even Mississippi ratified the 13th Amendment.  In 2013.  Sometimes you have to give bipartisanship a little time.

The New Deal

Our old friend Bill Manchester in The Glory and the Dream described America in the fourth year of the Great Depression thusly:

Between the Crash and 1932, the cruelest year of the Depression, the economy's downward spiral was accelerated by measures which, according to all accepted canons, ought to have brought recovery, and which in practice did the opposite. . . .Sales ebbed, so costs were cut by laying off men.  The unemployed could not buy the goods of other industries.  Therefore, sales dropped further, leading to more layoffs and a general shrinkage of purchasing power, until farmers were pauperized by the poverty of individual workers, who in turn were pauperized by the poverty of farmers.. . .

There was no one to protect them. The President . . was opposed to wage-hour legislation, so that when U.S. Steel made its second big wage slash in the spring of 1932, the workers were helpless. . . .There were strikes of desperation in 1932 .  All were lost.  Miners were paid $10.88 a month.., and were required to buy groceries at inflated prices at the company store; when they rebelled the protest was bloodily suppressed by armed strikebreakers backed by the National Guard. . . .

In such New England mill towns as Lynn and Lowell, where only one worker in three was employed, men were treated like serfs; one of them left Manchester, new Hampshire, to apply for a job in New Haven, was arrested, brought before a judge on a charge of vagrancy, and ordered back to his Manchester mill.

All this thanks to bipartisanship and free markets!

Following the 1932 election, won by Franklin D. Roosevelt by an electoral vote margin of 472 to 59, (the most lopsided result since the election of 1864, see supra) the new Administration started cleaning up the mess with a long series of programs including Social Security, government employment programs, and labor laws, known collectively as the “New Deal.”  In this he was aided by the fact that his party had picked up 97 seats in the House, giving them a total of 313.  In the Senate, Roosevelt and his allies had to get by with 59 seats to the Republicans' 36.

So to get the New Deal, all it took was almost four years of indescribable national privation and an electoral wipeout of the party that had refused to take effective action to restore America.  There must have been some bipartisanship in there somewhere.

The Great Society

1964 wasn't 1932, but not so long ago if you were old, poor, and in need of medical care, you died.  If you were black and wanted to vote any place south of Arlington, Virginia and east of Palm Springs, California, you were asking to be shot and your body bulldozed into an earthen dam.  A bipartisan coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats insured that it would be ever thus.

Archaeologists tell us that in ancient days a
magnificent species known as “moderate 
Republicans” once roamed the land
Then Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats won the 1964 election with some of the biggest margins since Roosevelt's in 1932.   President Johnson won the White House with 61% of the popular vote.  The Electoral Vote was 486 to 52 (in those days the popular and Electoral vote outcomes often matched).  The Democrats picked up 37 House seats for a total of 297; in the Senate they dominated 68-32.

In short order, we got Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, food stamps, and a host of other social programs.

The captious may point out that some of these initiatives attracted bipartisan votes.  To this we say that in these antediluvian times, the abyss between progressive and reactionary politics was not demarcated by party labels.  Ancient historians still tell tales of “moderate Republicans” like Chuck Percy of Illinois or Ed Brooke of Massachusetts who supported civil rights, while racist Democrats like Richard Russell of Georgia and John Stennis of Mississippi staunchly opposed any effort to enfranchise what they chose to call “nigras.”

Sadly these magnificent specimens did not survive the global climate change brought on by Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and 50 years of Republican pandering to the basest of their base.

Neither, it appears, does the theory that social progress depends on reaching out to hate-filled reactionaries.

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