If anything, past legislation in America is too stable. More old policy should be revisited, and if it’s not working, uprooted or overhauled. There’s nothing wrong with one party passing a bill that the next party repeals. That gives voters information they can use to decide who to vote for in the future. If a party repeals a popular bill, they will pay an electoral price. If they repeal an unpopular bill, or replace it with something better, they’ll prosper. That’s the way the system should work.
We are a divided country, but one way we could become less divided is for the consequences of elections to be clearer. When legislation is so hard to pass, politics becomes a battle over identity rather than a battle over policy. Don’t get me wrong: Fights over policy can be angry, even vicious. But they can also lead to changed minds — as in the winning coalition Democrats built atop the successes of the New Deal — or changed parties, as savvy politicians learn to accept the successes of the other side. There is a reason Republicans no longer try to repeal Medicare and Democrats shrink from raising taxes on the middle class.
This is what Manchin gets wrong: A world of partisan governance is a world in which Republicans and Democrats both get to pass their best ideas into law, and the public judges them on the results. That is far better than we have now, where neither party can routinely pass their best ideas into law, and the public is left frustrated that so much political tumult changes so little.
This whole debate is peculiarly American. In parliamentary systems, the job of the majority party, or majority coalition, is to govern, and the job of the opposition party is to oppose. Cooperation can and does occur, but there’s nothing unusual or regrettable when it doesn’t, and government does not grind to a halt in its absence. Not so in America, where the president can be from one party and Congress can be controlled by another. In raising bipartisanship to a high political ideal, we have made a virtue out of a necessity, but that’s left us little recourse, either philosophically or legislatively, when polarization turns bipartisanship into a rarity. That’s where we are now.
The legislation Senate Democrats have passed and considered in their first 100 days is unusually promising precisely because it has been unusually partisan. They are considering ideas they actually think are right for the country — and popular with voters — as opposed to the narrow set of ideas Republicans might support. The question they will face in the coming months is whether they want to embrace partisan legislating, repeatedly using budget reconciliation and even ridding the Senate of the filibuster, or abandon their agenda and leave the rest of the country’s problems unsolved.
“I can tell you this, I am going to do everything I can to get the biggest, boldest change we can, because I think the people I represent depend on it,” Schumer told me. “My party depends on it. But most of all, the future of my country depends on it.”
It will surprise no one to hear that I think Democrats should get rid of the filibuster. But it’s not because I believe Democrats necessarily have the right answers for what ails America. It’s because I believe the right answers are likelier to be found if one party, and then the other, can try its hand at solving America’s problems. Partisan governance gives both parties true input over how America is governed; they just have to win elections. Bipartisan governance, at least with parties this polarized, does the opposite: It deprives both sides of the ability to govern and elections of their consequences.
Additional reporting by Roge Karma.