Bipartisanship is Dead, Long Live Bipartisanship

Tue, 2019-11-26

By Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer

As the House Intelligence Committee was conducting its impeachment hearings this past week, the country was once again shown what extreme partisanship looks like. The pitched battles inside the committee room and the party line talking points flowing on Twitter and cable news serve as the latest example of how deeply entrenched partisan behavior is undermining our democracy. The whole spectacle is enough to drive citizens-- no matter their party affiliation-- to despair.

But during the impeachment hearings, in another meeting room on Capitol Hill, we were given a timely reminder of the power of bipartisanship and a reason to hope. The Javits Foundation gave its lifetime achievement award to former Senator Richard Lugar to recognize his extraordinary commitment to bipartisan leadership during his six terms in the U.S. Senate and beyond. At the same ceremony, The Javits Foundation also honored Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Republican Congressman Doug Collins of Georgia for their ongoing commitment to bipartisanship.

Senator Lugar served as a Republican Senator from Indiana from 1977 to 2013, and he was known for reaching across the aisle to get legislation passed. The most celebrated example is the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act, passed in 1991, which Lugar crafted in collaboration with Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, among others. Over his long career in the Senate, Lugar broke ranks with his own party on issues ranging from immigration to congressional earmarks. When President Barack Obama presented Lugar with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, he praised him as “someone who wasn’t a Republican or Democrat first, but a problem-solver.”

One of the animating forces in Lugar’s political life was the idea that elected officials had to seek consensus whenever possible in order for our democracy to succeed. In his mind, settling for a 51-percent majority on issues was not enough; aiming to secure at least 60 or 70 percent support helped foster a spirit of compromise that would pay future dividends. Lugar put it this way: “If the minority is not a participant, it begins to see its job as frustrating the majority. A 51-percent mentality deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas, and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times. Leaders should not content themselves with 51 percent if they can expand a working majority through outreach, judicious rhetoric, bipartisan alliances, and thoughtful argumentation.”

Lugar carried these principles forward after his retirement from the Senate. He founded The Lugar Center, a non-profit dedicated to seeking solutions to 21st century global problems and promoting civil dialogue to encourage bipartisan governance. He also served on the advisory board of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), which urges elected officials to work together to solve our biggest problems, while embracing the idea that people with different values and political preferences can discuss their differences in a civil and productive manner.

As the Executive Director of NICD from July 2012 to January 2019, I got to experience Senator Lugar’s commitment firsthand. He clearly understood that the social norms of civility and respect are foundational to a healthy democracy and that our current political climate and culture are degrading and undermining those important norms. He was always one of the first to speak up when NICD needed to take a stand about an egregious violation of civility and respect in our politics.

Richard Lugar passed away earlier this year, but the bipartisan spirit he embodied is very much alive. Organizations like The Lugar Center, NICD and others are working tirelessly to model and foster civility and to encourage citizens and elected leaders at all levels of government to engage in honest dialogue in order to find common ground and common sense solutions to the biggest problems we face.

While it’s easy to despair as we watch the polarized impeachment process unfold in Washington, Senator Lugar’s example and perspective should inspire all Americans. After serving 36 years in the Senate, Lugar observed: “The inherent strengths and traditions of American democracy far outweigh any recent erosion of our political culture. We have lived through eras far more difficult than the present one and we possess all that is necessary to build upon the great American experiment.”

All of us-- Democrats, Republicans and Independents--- can give thanks this Thanksgiving week for statesmen like Richard Lugar and public servants like Hakeem Jeffries and Doug Collins, whose leadership reminds us that bipartisanship lives on.