It was a moment that was simultaneously heartening and discouraging. Appearing together recently on a Sunday morning news show, Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., spoke admiringly of each other in reporting their cooperative efforts to hammer out an immigration bill that would survive the cauldron of congressional partisanship.
Even Bob Schieffer, host of “Face the Nation” on CBS, noted it. “This reminds me of how Washington used to be when I first came to Washington,” he said at the end of the segment, suggesting that the two senators “take this on the road.”
Years ago, no one would have noticed. Democrats and Republicans could certainly fight each other, but it wasn’t news when they worked together in the nation’s interest. It is news today. Politics has become so polarized – largely, it must be said, because of the tea party influence on the Republicans – that it is all but impossible to take care of routine business, let alone important matters like immigration and the deficit and entitlements and health care and the environment and civil rights and economic growth and on and on and on.
It’s not that the parties must never disagree. Indeed, the whole point of a legislature is to provide a mechanism, chained to the machinery of democracy, for lawmakers to settle their differences in a broadly acceptable way. It wasn’t all that long ago that the system worked. Think of the Social Security reform that Congress adopted when Ronald Reagan was president.
Today, that kind of effort is the exception, and a rare one, at that. The arrival of Newt Gingrich as House speaker in 1995 marked a turning point. Gingrich was less a legislator than a holy warrior. He was not content just to advocate the Republican agenda, but needed to categorically demonize his opponents. It’s a tactic that has become predictable among the foaming mouths on talk radio and elsewhere and it would be laughable if so many members of Congress, either through intimidation or indoctrination, didn’t buy into it.
So it comes as a welcome surprise when two senators – men who have had their own disputes in the past – agree not only to work together but to be seen in public together. Smiling, even. It would be a shame to conclude that it took political courage to do that, so we won’t. But it does at least take a desire to attend to the public’s business and an understanding that our form of democracy – unlike, say, a parliamentary system – was designed to work only when adversaries compromise.
That’s what Schumer, McCain and the rest of the Gang of Eight are working on. The inhabitants of the far left and the far right may not like it, but most of this centrist nation, we suspect, is quietly cheering their efforts.
It would be a fine thing if these efforts produced a strong immigration reform bill, but better still if the Schumer-McCain example spread to other matters of national interest and even – is it too much to expect? – if the spirit of their approach migrated to the legislative wreck on the other side of the Capitol, a.k.a. the House of Representatives.
It could happen, but only if Americans demand it.