What Would It Take for Democrats and Republicans to Work Together?

Bipartisanship most often occurs in moments when one party has deep internal divisions, or when there are strong political incentives to cooperate.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, right, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, laugh at Senator Charles Schumer during a ceremony to drive in the first nails to signify the start of construction on the 2017 presidential inaugural platform on Capitol Hill in Washington.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, right, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, laugh at Senator Charles Schumer during a ceremony to drive in the first nails to signify the start of construction on the 2017 presidential inaugural platform on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Julian Zelizer: Although I never would have thought it possible, I do agree that there is a small window for bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Importantly, the chances of this happening remain slim. The forces that generate partisan polarization run very deep—from the way our campaign finance system works to partisan gerrymandering—so at any moment in our current era getting the parties to agree is a herculean challenge.

In general, my read on history suggests that the times when we do have bipartisanship either take place because each party is deeply divided internally, thus creating ripe conditions for bipartisan alliances, or because there are strong partisan incentives for one party to cooperate with the other. When President Truman successfully reached out to Senator Vandenberg and some other Senate Republicans, it was crucial that many in the GOP did not want to be seen by voters as the way of liberal internationalism in the aftermath of WWII and the expansion of Soviet communism. When President Johnson found Republican cooperation on civil rights in 1964 and 1965, Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen understood that their party had a chance to improve their own standing as southern Democrats became the face of political reaction.

Why might bipartisanship be possible today? There are two reasons, and Senate Republicans will be the key to what happens. Basically, two developments are creating political pressure on Senate Republicans to at least consider working with Democrats. The first is that President Trump keeps delving deeper and deeper into politically intolerable territory. There are many Republicans who are deeply frustrated with Trump’s failure to move any legislative agenda and, especially after the disastrous response of the president to the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, that he is causing irreparable damage to the reputation of his party. Each day seems to get worse, and some Republicans must be thinking that the only way to salvage their party is to reach across the aisle. Senate Republicans could decide that working with the Democrats is the ultimate way to stick it to the president.

Senate Republicans are also aware, especially after the collapse of the health-care bill, that the Freedom Caucus is now producing legislation that is so extreme it is not viable for many Republicans to support and that they are not committed to the basic demands of governance. Some Republicans like Senator John McCain have been warning for years that House Republicans are severely damaging the reputation of the GOP and, like Trump, making it hard for the party to gain traction even when they are a majority.

Will Senate Republicans make the dramatic move of trying to find legislation, from fixing the Affordable Care Act to moving onto criminal-justice reform or infrastructure, that might be difficult for Senator Schumer and his colleagues to say no to?

Democrats have less incentive to work with Republicans right now given the mess that the party is in. As they watch Trump’s approval ratings plummet and the congressional Republicans tie themselves up in knots, there is good reason for the Democrats to remain on the sideline. Yet if there are genuine opportunities that emerge, making progress on a few key issues could work in the favor of Democrats by providing a stark contrast to the destructive path of the commander in chief.

The odds are still incredibly low and the toxic and divisive atmosphere in Trump’s Washington will make any kind of bipartisan deal very difficult to achieve.

But maybe, just maybe, that could be a small ray of light at the end of this chaotic presidential tunnel—Trump makes conditions so bad that the impossible actually happens, the parties can work together on the nation’s problems.

Morton Keller: Julian, as your readiness to see a “small window” for bipartisanship grows, mine lessens. It seems evident that Trump is inexorably alienating more and more members of his own party. There's McCain and Flake in Nevada; there may well be McConnell and Ryan—the GOP congressional  leadership—as well.

But I'm not sure that this in itself is a possible road to increased bipartisanship. That particular dance requires two partners. And while the bipartisan temptation for the GOP may be increasing, the incentive for the Democrats to accommodate  them lessens. That was certainly the case during the decades when the Democrats dominated Congress. And just as the Republicans, in the flush of their 2016 control of Congress, showed little inclination to reach out to Democrats despite the narrowness of their majority, so was Obama's post-2008 majority uninterested in reaching out to the GOP. That, it appears, is the nature of our current political culture.

I question whether, as you observe, the Senate Republicans are “key” in fostering bipartisanship. One problem is that the “alt-right” element that does so much damage to GOP attempts at governance is being quickly matched by a Democratic “alt-left” equivalent comparably committed to political war to the death.

Does history offer any comfort? Not much. Truman's Marshall Plan triumph rested on both a widespread sense of world crisis and a massive PR campaign that would be difficult to imagine happening today. Of course an international or domestic crisis of comparable proportions could upset the apple cart. But even so evanescent a time of good feeling as that following 9/11 is difficult to imagine occurring today. The two sides are too polarized, too locked into their respective world views.

If I see any light at the end of the tunnel, it consists of the thought (hope?) that Trump's behavior will lead to bipartisan agreement that it is time to carve back the power of an Imperial Presidency and an Autonomous Bureaucracy, and foster a New Federalism that distributes government power to more democratic, more competitive sources, both public and private.

But I must admit that this remains a fairly remote hope rather than a possible or probable likelihood.

Zelizer: It could be that the crisis, comparable to a Cold War or civil rights battle, is President Trump himself. The deeper we get into this presidency, the clearer it becomes that this is not politics as usual and the potential for true instability is very serious. The crisis that triggers bipartisan action, with both parties concerned about the national interest, would be Trump's reckless leadership.

But we are in agreement that this is a far way off. The burden will be on Republicans, given they are the party that delivered this president, to make substantive and substantial offers that make it worthwhile for Democrats to move forward with legislation in a process that is now totally paralyzed.