“There are two kinds of people in politics,” says Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader: “Those who want to make a point and those who want to make a difference.”
“All of us from time to time make a point,” he told The New York Times, “but it is time now to make a difference.”
It’s a new year and a new Congress. McConnell now has to convince fellow Republicans to follow his adage: to go from the party of “no” to the party of “yes”; from part of the problem to part of the solution; from making trouble to making progress.
The odds are stacked heavily against him, in part because McConnell himself – as the minority leader during President Obama’s first six years – often acted as Chief Obstructer to the White House agenda. But as he notes, times have changed, and that shift opens a small sliver of opportunity.
It sounds counterintuitive, but since the Republicans did so well in the fall elections and now control both houses of Congress, they could be in a better position to compromise with the president.
Here’s the reasoning: Voters have shown confidence in the Republicans; they want the party to join the governing process. They expect to see a record of accomplishment. So if the GOP hopes to retake the White House in 2016, they have to heed the voters and “make a difference.”
There are precedents here. A Republican-controlled Congress worked closely with President Clinton on issues like welfare reform. Democrats on Capitol Hill helped pass tax and immigration reforms signed by President Reagan.
At the end of the last Congress, pragmatists in both parties joined to pass a measure, signed by Obama, to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. That vote might – and we emphasize might – provide a template for bipartisan cooperation this year on issues like trade, taxes and infrastructure improvements.
“There are a lot of trends here that suggest a more productive Congress, and one that earns the respect of the American people,” Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee told the Washington Post.
Accomplishing that goal will be difficult because respect for Congress is so low – and for good reason. The last two legislative sessions have been the least productive in our entire history, and the United States is moving steadily toward a European model, with ideologically based parties that barely overlap in the center.
A study by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal concludes: “Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the end of Reconstruction.”
That can work in a parliamentary system, where one party or governing coalition selects a prime minister and enjoys a mandate to enact its program. But in the American system, which divides power among three branches of government, ideologically pure parties are a recipe for paralysis unless one party decisively controls all three branches. And that won’t be true for the next two years, at least.
Voters understand this trend – and hate it. In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 71 percent said gridlock in Washington would “hurt” the nation “a lot” and another 16 percent said it would do “some” damage. Only 13 percent expressed no concern.
Moreover, they are pessimistic about the future. More than 3 out of 4 say political divisions will deepen or remain the same; only 17 percent expect any improvement.
That gloom is justified, except for one small thing. Yes, the parties are far more homogenous than they used to be, but they still represent uneasy coalitions of divergent factions. And the vote on the funding bill revealed those fissures.
Republican hardliners opposed the bill because it didn’t do enough to thwart President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Still, 162 House Republicans and 24 GOP senators defied those pressures and voted yes.
Democratic liberals denounced the legislation as too friendly to big banks and Wall Street. Yet 57 Democrats in the House and 32 in the Senate joined the majority.
These are the lawmakers, in both parties, who understand that in an era of divided government, all legislation is messy and imperfect. They are the ones who came to Washington to “make a difference” and not just make a scene.
It’s now up to the Republicans who run Congress and the Democrat who occupies the White House to strengthen this fragile alliance of pragmatists and mobilize them behind other issues.
Voters are right to be skeptical. But hey, it’s a new year. Hope happens.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.