We Bow to the God Bipartisanship

We Bow to the God Bipartisanship

Mini Teaser: Bipartisanship: the Holy Grail of American politics. Long the go-to buzzword for presidents, elusive cross-aisle support at home has all too often been purchased at the price of good policy abroad.

by Author(s): Leslie H. Gelb

UPON HIS departure as secretary of defense, none other than Washington’s latest living legend Robert Gates cautioned those he was leaving behind to cherish and nurture bipartisanship. “When we have been successful in national security and foreign affairs, it has been because there has been bipartisan support.” To drive the point home, he added: “No major international problem can be solved on one president’s watch. And so, unless it has bipartisan support, unless it can be extended over a period of time, the risks of failure [are] high.”

Contrary to Gates’s Holy Grail sentiments and to most homilies to bipartisanship, Dean Acheson tagged the practice a “magnificent fraud.” As President Truman’s secretary of state and thus one of its earliest practitioners, he knew of what he spoke. In a 1971 interview at the Truman Library, Acheson offered a taste of his usual rough-and-tumble candor:

The question, who is it bad for, and who is it good for, is what you ought to put your mind on. . . . No, I wouldn’t be too serious about bipartisanship. It’s a great myth that ought to be fostered. And don’t bring too damn much scholarship to bear on it. You’ll prove it out of existence if you’re not careful.

The intent here is not to slaughter the sacred cow, but to reduce its high-flying levitation, thereby giving its Washington worshippers a better view of when bipartisanship might be useful and harmful—and to whom. Presidents seek bipartisanship to tamp down domestic critics and to convince foreign leaders that they cannot outlast or undermine presidential policies—as happened with Hanoi during the Vietnam War, Moscow during arms-control talks of the Cold War and the Taliban in the current war in Afghanistan. But in these and many other cases, bipartisan backing at home has too often been purchased at the price of good policy abroad.

When worrying too much about bipartisanship, presidents also would do well to reflect on their vast powers to make foreign policy, powers to act as they think best—even in the face of serious political attacks. My concern is that Gates and many others have so inflated bipartisanship’s centrality that it has become a distraction from, and detriment to, making good policy. And if it is greater political support presidents are seeking, they’d find it better in the results of smart thinking than in compromised positions. Good policy enhances the chances of success abroad, which in the end is good politics as well.

The distance from Gates to Acheson is not small: Gates holds that two-party togetherness is essential to successful foreign policy. Acheson saw it as a useful political tool for presidents, presumably to curb domestic opposition and add some weight to U.S. foreign policy—but did not want key decision makers to be teary eyed and reverent about it. Three national-security advisers interviewed for this article—Brent Scowcroft for Presidents Ford and George H. W. Bush, Sandy Berger for President Clinton and Stephen Hadley for President George W. Bush—fall somewhere in between, though closer to the latter. Whatever their differences, all agree that a review of bipartisanship—its meaning, practice and value—is long overdue.

INDEED, THE story and study of bipartisanship best reveal why Acheson’s cynicism is preferable to Gates’s worship. And most begin the narrative with Truman, Acheson and George Marshall. More or less, this trio maneuvered Senator Arthur Vandenberg, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, into being their cat’s-paw in a Republican-controlled Senate. They needed the very influential Michigan senator to cajole more than a dozen of his fellow conservatives to vote for Truman’s highly controversial Cold War initiatives: the Marshall Plan, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the like. With the brilliance and effectiveness of these initiatives, cries for bipartisanship became a Washington staple. The idea grew so agreeable that few policy hands carefully examined exactly what bipartisanship meant or searched for its telling derivations.

The roots of bipartisanship go back to the well-worn trope that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Vandenberg is often credited as its author, but it seems that the first utterer of this biblical phrase was Daniel Webster, as a member of the House during the War of 1812. “Even our party divisions, acrimonious as they are, cease at the water’s edge,” said the great orator. He was either hallucinating or wishing upon a star, for even in his day, political divisions abounded over international affairs. As for Vandenberg, he actually preferred the term “unpartisan,” similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of state Cordell Hull’s “nonpartisan.” FDR himself and, later, President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles used today’s favored term, “bipartisanship.” Whoever first framed the incantation and whatever its exact origins, the propagators all had the same idea in mind: while squabbles at home represent democracy at work and are fine, unity abroad is necessary.

Ignoring Acheson’s injunction to leave the subject well enough alone for fear of debunking “the myth,” scholars plunged in and proved with data that the practice of bipartisanship has been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, according to political scientists James McCormick and Eugene Wittkopf, bipartisanship—defined stringently yet commonly as majorities of each party supporting the president—has been absent for most of the post-WWII period. Amazingly, they found that since 1947, only Eisenhower met the standard in both houses of Congress for most of his foreign-policy positions. Even after 9/11, George W. Bush achieved only a modest spike in cross-aisle largesse.

Bipartisanship has been in short supply, and partisanship has been the norm. Since 1947, every president won far more support from members of his own party in both congressional bodies than from the opposition; in fact, on average 20 percent more in each chamber on foreign-policy issues. The reality has been that on many key congressional votes dealing with foreign policy and national security, Congress has split along party lines. In other words, the reality is that politics rarely stopped at the water’s edge.

Despite the absence of bipartisanship since World War II, presidents have generally survived the political deluge and followed their desired foreign-policy paths. That’s because they have the bulk of the political and bureaucratic guns—the State and Defense Departments’ expertise, the intelligence agencies’ claim on facts and so on. By comparison, congressional staffs are puny. Add to this, when push comes to shove, Congress’s traditional deference to the president as commander in chief plus key Supreme Court decisions favoring executive authority in foreign policy. Indeed, it’s only in trade negotiations and foreign aid that Congress comes close to holding its own. On aid and trade, legislators have fought hard and well, and above all, here their local political interests cannot be ignored.

LET US take it case by case. In the face of constant Republican barrages, Truman’s Cold War initiatives proved successful in establishing containment, deterrence and a worldwide ring of alliances. True, his detractors among both Republicans and conservative Democrats prevented him from engaging the Chinese Communists, but he steadfastly avoided their insistence on unleashing a war against them. As for Eisenhower, he settled for a highly unpopular stalemate on the Korean Peninsula while conservatives clamored for a nuclear attack. Nor did he bend to incessant pressures from hawks in both parties to vastly expand military spending and confront Moscow.

John F. Kennedy looked like a hawk, albeit a befuddled one, to Democrats as well as Republicans. Early on he botched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and an initial meeting with his Soviet counterpart. In short order, however, he faced down a Soviet threat in Berlin and Cuba, initiated arms-control talks with the dreaded Soviet regime, began a huge military buildup and crept into a war in Indochina. Kennedy was able to do all this his way, even though his victory in 1960 was a squeaker over Richard Nixon—and despite widespread skepticism about his experience and executive maturity.

For Lyndon Johnson, foreign policy began and ended with Vietnam. Congressional leaders raised their doubts about the war publicly, and mobs raged outside the White House and Pentagon, but he persisted in escalating the bombing of North Vietnam and raising troop levels in the South (all the way up to 550,000). No president before him had ever confronted more open and violent opposition on a foreign-policy issue—and still he basically kept to his course, good or bad. It was to get worse for Richard Nixon.

Indeed, what Johnson sowed in the Vietnam War—exploding doubts and fears about grossly excessive, unchecked and dangerous White House power on foreign affairs—Presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan were to reap. Suffice it to say, however, they too called most shots.

George H. W. Bush staunchly followed his own path despite constant fire from both parties. He and his team essentially got Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle the Soviet empire. Though conservatives lambasted him for “being taken in” by the Soviet leader, Bush persisted and succeeded. In order to keep following a traditional realist course on China, Bush the elder also successfully vetoed bills to tighten sanctions on the Beijing regime after the Tiananmen Square massacre. He got the necessary majorities to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, though significant numbers of Democratic senators dissented. Besides, his aides made clear that he would go to war with Iraq with or without a congressional resolution, citing his power as commander in chief. Above all, he ended the Cold War without a shot fired; all the while conservatives screamed “sellout!”

Image: Pullquote: Brent Scowcroft put it best: “Our policies are too often constructed to deal with domestic politics rather than the realities of world politics.” Essay Types: Essay