As we get toward nut-cutting time on health care reform, some analysts are concerned that any measure that seems likely to emerge from the protracted negotiations in Congress might not bear the imprimatur of support from both parties that was a hallmark of earlier landscape-changing legislation from Social Security in the '30s to Medicare in the '60s to tax reform in the '80s. Depending on the course of negotiations, any bill with a decent chance of passing will have the support of between maybe zero and a half-dozen Republicans; the Democrats, for better or worse, will "own" any new health care system. Traditionally, this has been a deterrent to any big change in policy: neither party wants to present such a clear target for any voters who are unhappy with transformative legislation. That Republicans wouldn't get on board for the Clintons' proposed health care overhaul 15 years ago, or Democrats with President Bush's effort to privatize Social Security in 2005, helps explain why neither package was passed, or even voted on.
I'm starting to think, though, that this is much more a problem for the likes of David Broder, who value bipartisanship for its own sake, than for anyone else--certainly the public. The reason why is because achieving bipartisanship today is demonstrably harder than was the case seventy, forty, or even twenty years ago. There's no "middle" to speak of anymore.
(At least, not in the corridors of power. Public opinion itself is pretty much unchanged--which is why it's not as much of a stretch as it might seem to an engaged voter that in just 25 years, it's a virtual certainty that hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of voters cast presidential ballots for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.)
This graphic somewhat explains how things have changed over time (and it's mostly gotten worse since 2001, as remaining moderates like Senators Max Cleland and Lincoln Chafee and Representatives like Chris Shays and Sherry Boehlert have retired or lost):
By the '80s, when the Tax Reform Act was passed, the middle was beginning to clear--but there were still enough moderates on both sides of the aisle to strike a deal. Perhaps even more important, you had a motivated Republican president, Reagan, and an equally motivated Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill. They both needed a win, and they both could exert considerable pressure on their underlings to get a deal done. That more than made the difference from the '30s and '60s, when Democrats enjoyed unified control of the federal government (as they do today, of course), and there remained enough moderate Republicans to address clear national needs for retirement security and health coverage for particularly vulnerable populations.
Today, the few remaining Republicans even marginally willing to deal--almost all in the Senate, and almost all toward the end of their careers--admit variously that they're under great pressure from their colleagues to do no such thing and that much of the opposition to proposals is entirely motivated by politics. This is the ultimate manifestation of the Rovian political style: solving the actual problems of the country is barely even a consideration when there's a political fight to be won. In fairness, it probably runs contrary to everything we know about human nature to expect anything different: just as kids who are raised without responsible parents in an atmosphere of antisocial lawlessness are more likely to engage in crime and fail in their human relationships, Republicans who build their careers entirely on demonizing opponents and appealing to the worst instincts in voters are more likely to persist in those approaches as they make their way up the political food chain.
But that's all there is anymore. Short of taking a Republican plan--assuming one could discover such a thing--word for word in legislation, it's all but impossible to imagine a health care reform proposal that would enjoy support from the minority. The overwhelming majority of the Republican caucus seems unserious about solving the problem, and until that changes, they don't deserve even a seat at the table. Let the Democrats pass the best plan on the merits--which, to be honest, might be a bigger problem still--and let them face the consequences. At some point, politics must take a back seat.