Is bi­par­ti­san­ship only a nos­tal­gic me­mory?

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - DAVID SHRIB­MAN David M. Shrib­man is the former ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor of the Pitts­burgh Postgazett­e. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manpg.

Call­ing Olympia Snowe: Help! Snowe is the first woman to be elected to both houses of her state leg­is­la­ture and both houses of the U.S. Congress. For four decades, she was a sen­tinel of good sense in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and a mem­ber of a van­ish­ing breed in our civic life: a mod­er­ate who earned her no­to­ri­ety not by yelling, but by whis­per­ing.

But her great­est con­tri­bu­tion may have come two decades ago, dur­ing a 20th-cen­tury pe­riod we thought was con­tentious be­fore we knew what 21st-cen­tury con­tention would be like. Even so, the par­ties were at war with each other, there was more shout­ing than con­tem­plat­ing, and a pres­i­dent had just been im­peached. It was the Bill Clin­ton era, and sud­denly there was an Olympia Snowe mo­ment.

Here is what hap­pened af­ter it be­came clear that an im­peached Clin­ton would soon face a blis­ter­ing Se­nate trial:

Snowe ap­proached the Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader of her own party, Trent Lott. Lott was a bit­ter par­ti­san, no friend of the 42nd pres­i­dent, and no pushover. But Lott, of Mis­sis­sippi, and Snowe, of Maine -- two law­mak­ers with yawn­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences -- had served to­gether in the House for a decade. They knew each other. They had grudg­ing re­spect for each other.

Snowe had read deeply into the his­tory of impeachmen­t. She knew the role one of her pre­de­ces­sors, Wil­liam Co­hen, had played as a young mem­ber of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee dur­ing the impeachmen­t hear­ings in the Richard Nixon years; a quar­ter­century ear­lier, Co­hen, a Repub­li­can who ac­tu­ally be­came the sec­re­tary of de­fense in the Demo­cratic Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, voted to im­peach a pres­i­dent of his own party. She wor­ried that the Clin­ton impeachmen­t episode would plant a black mark of par­ti­san­ship on the Se­nate, al­ready riven by dis­sen­sion.

“Con­vict­ing a pres­i­dent on charges of impeachmen­t is more com­plex than just de­ter­min­ing guilt or in­no­cence,” she wrote to Lott of her ex­am­i­na­tion of the past. “It meant de­cid­ing if wrong­do­ing rose to the level the Con­sti­tu­tion es­tab­lished for re­moval from of­fice.”

Then the two be­gan to con­sult of­ten, and by the time the Se­nate re­con­vened in early Jan­uary 1999, she had as­sem­bled the ar­chi­tec­ture of a bi­par­ti­san ap­proach to the trial in the cham­ber. At the heart of her think­ing: As much as pos­si­ble, the Se­nate trial should re­sem­ble a court trial, with sen­a­tors able to “iden­tify the ma­te­ri­als and cred­i­ble facts” of the charges against Clin­ton.

This was crit­i­cal be­cause the lead­ers of the two par­ties were spar­ring over the rules for the trial. “This is wrong,” she told a meet­ing of her GOP col­leagues; and soon plans took shape for an un­usual meet­ing of sen­a­tors in an un­usual set­ting -- the Old Se­nate Cham­ber, or­di­nar­ily used for be­nign cer­e­monies and in­nocu­ous for­mal­i­ties. The re­sult: bi­par­ti­san agree­ment on how to pro­ceed, and less par­ti­san ran­cor than might other­wise have been dis­played for the world to see in a tele­vised spec­ta­cle.

Snowe is gone from the Se­nate; she left in 2013, but be­fore de­part­ing she is­sued a warn­ing to her col­leagues in the form of an op-ed in The Wash­ing­ton Post, speak­ing of the ne­ces­sity of “re­vers­ing the cor­ro­sive trend of win­ner-take-all pol­i­tics” in the cham­ber. Ob­vi­ously, no one lis­tened.

But for an im­por­tant time, Lott had lis­tened, even though he surely sus­pected that Snowe did not see the Clin­ton mat­ter quite the way he did. In­deed, Lott voted twice to con­vict Clin­ton, while Snowe voted twice to ac­quit him. The pres­i­dent’s op­po­nents lacked the two-thirds vote to con­vict, and thus to pro­pel him from of­fice.

To­day we live in a far dif­fer­ent world. Par­ti­san­ship has grown, the con­ver­sa­tion has be­come even more toxic, and there is more in­cen­tive to prac­tice eye-for-an-eye pol­i­tics than to at­tempt to see eye-to-eye. No Repub­li­cans voted to im­peach Don­ald J. Trump. All but three Democrats voted to send both ar­ti­cles to the Se­nate trial with the hope Trump might be stripped of the pres­i­dency.

No mat­ter how you feel about impeachmen­t -- or how you feel about Trump, or the Democrats -- it is dif­fi­cult to deny that our cur­rent pas­sage would be more palat­able if at least a hand­ful on each side broke with the ma­jor­ity.

A plu­ral­ity of the most im­por­tant things this coun­try has done have been with the sup­port of both Repub­li­cans and Democrats. Mem­bers of both par­ties voted for So­cial Se­cu­rity in 1935, for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for both the Medi­care and Vot­ing Rights Acts of 1965, for the ini­ti­a­tion of mil­i­tary ac­tion in both world wars, Viet­nam, the Gulf and Afghanista­n. Some of those mil­i­tary con­flicts be­gat bit­ter po­lit­i­cal con­flict later, but they be­gan with bi­par­ti­san back­ing.

The new cen­tury re­veals a new po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Not one Repub­li­can -- not even Snowe, who toyed with the no­tion -- voted for Oba­macare. Only three Democrats voted for the con­fir­ma­tion of Neil Gor­such to the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Gins­burg, ar­guably as ar­dent a ju­rist on the left as Gor­such is on the right -- per­haps even more so -- had been con­firmed by a 96-3 vote. That was only a quar­ter-cen­tury ago.

Of course, the par­ties have changed, in fa­tal con­tra­dic­tion to the nostrum set forth by Harry Tru­man in a 1960 mem­oir:

“I have been fiercely par­ti­san in pol­i­tics and al­ways mil­i­tantly lib­eral,” Tru­man wrote. “Yet I think we would lose some­thing im­por­tant to our po­lit­i­cal life if the con­ser­va­tives were all in one party and the lib­er­als all in the other. This would make us a na­tion di­vided ei­ther into two op­pos­ing and ir­rec­on­cil­able camps or into even smaller and more con­tentious groups.”

Tru­man once was de­rided by Repub­li­cans. Now his no-non­sense sen­si­bil­ity has bi­par­ti­san ap­peal. But the ap­peal he set forth in the last year of the pres­i­dency of a man he re­viled (Dwight Eisen­hower) and a year be­fore the pres­i­dency of one he re­spected only spar­ingly (John F. Kennedy) is be­yond our ken or ca­pac­ity.

More’s the pity. Still, there is a deep yearn­ing in a deeply di­vided coun­try for lead­er­ship that is not di­vi­sive, and though the chances are min­i­mal, some ges­tures of bi­par­ti­san­ship in what surely will be the par­ti­san process of a Se­nate trial would pro­vide a na­tional, per­haps Olympic, sense of re­lief. Sum­mon­ing Sen. Snowe.

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