Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch from Utah and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio got into a well-publicized argument Thursday during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.
But amid all the raised voices and pounding gavels, Hatch uttered one sentence that cut to the heart of much of what ails Washington these days.
“If we worked together, we could pull this country out of every mess it’s in,” he said.
When the shouting was over, the committee approved the Republican tax plan on a purely partisan 14-12 vote.
It’s getting hard to remember when the idea began that bipartisan cooperation is political poison. Perhaps it happened sometime between the bipartisan tax reform bill of 1986 and the early months of the Obama administration, when Democrats pushed through the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote.
It’s also hard to know which side is more to blame. The majority party holds the power, of course, but both parties have a responsibility to make earnest efforts toward a compromise that would have broader appeal to the American people. Today, both sides seem more afraid to face their core constituents with the taint of having conceded something or collaborated with the other side.
So they resort to an old tactic of warfare — demonizing and dehumanizing the other. Politicians long have been good at stereotyping their opponents, of course, but the Americans who don’t place ideology over country are surely tiring of the phoniness.
Brown used such tactics when he said Republicans always want to push legislation that helps the wealthy because “it’s in their DNA.”
Think about that for a moment. All members of one party do a certain thing because that is essentially a part of their physical makeup? Any grammar school student ought to be able to pull the straw man out of that statement. It immediately reduces the other side to a paper-thin, one-dimensional cutout, and of course it would be pointless to try to work with such a creature.
Republicans are also adept at painting Democrats as creatures who always see higher taxes and big government solutions, even where problems do not exist. Many people have become conditioned to believe these things are true, free of any complicating facets. Hatch is right — as long as such tactics rule the day, Washington has little chance to pull itself out of any mess, let alone a budget crisis that threatens national security with yearly deficits and a growing national debt.
Nobody likes to be reduced to a stereotype. We understand why Hatch, raised in poverty in Pittsburgh and the first person in his family to attend college, who once had a reputation for working across the aisle with the likes of Ted Kennedy, would react so viscerally. He, like every other member of the Senate, is a complex combination of personal experiences and motivations and of underlying philosophies about good governance.
The beauty of a republic is that it brings representatives of diverse populations and needs together to forge laws that balance competing interests. Majorities always hold the upper hand, but legislation that wins at least some minority support usually takes on an air of legitimacy. Legislation pushed through without such support solves little. When the other party gains control, it seeks immediately to overturn such laws, and little gets settled.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, politicians working together could solve problems, and we believe the American people would reward them for it.