Vanishing Bipartisanship

Warren Rudman has spent years perfecting the art of bipartisanship. Called a “consensus-forging leader” by Senator Olympia Snowe, Rudman, who served two terms as a U.S. senator from New Hampshire (1980– 92), is well-known for his role in bipartisan deficit reduction and, more recently, for his work on the United States Commission on National Security, which he co-chaired with then–Senator Gary Hart. In November, he talked about how members of both parties can work together more effectively.

Tell me about your work on the United States Commission on National Security.

We had people as diverse as Newt Gingrich and Lee Hamilton and Andrew Young -- all serious-minded people who agreed there was a terrific problem and were focused on trying to find a solution. We worked together very, very well. The commission predicted what would happen with terrorism in this country, and it recommended the creation of a Department of Homeland Security long before [September 11].

Was there a high point of bipartisanship on the Hill?

Historically, you get a lot of bipartisanship during a time of national stress and crisis because people recognize the country has to move together with one voice. Unfortunately, that doesn't last long. After December 7, 1941, the Congress grew together. But toward the end of World War II, it started to separate again. More recently, Congress came together after 9-11. A year or so later, it started to draw apart. It's also true with the Iraq War.

Lately, bipartisanship on the Hill seems to have taken a real beating. What's happened?

I think elections have become far more intense and negative, and that kind of seeps over into the running of the Senate. Some people have a lot of hard feelings toward other members because of the types of campaigns they have waged. My sense is that this has led to a lot of intense feeling between the parties. When I was there, it was not unusual to have people on both sides of the aisle who were friendly on a personal level. I think that's less prevalent today.

In a recent Washington Post article, Senator Lamar Alexander blames the partisan rancor on “outside issue groups with their scorecards, 24-hour news, and the fight for control that has spilled over from the House.”

I agree with Lamar. I think the outside special-interest groups have created a lot of the partisanship that exists, and I don't see anything in the immediate future that's going to change it. I know that during the two Reagan terms and the Bush [Senior] term you didn't have the level of intense dislike that we have seen with both President Clinton and George W. Bush. It a direct result of the political system.

So there's nothing about these two presidents that brought it on.

Yes, I truly believe that.

In what areas do you think the parties can work well together?

On the appropriations bill, people can compromise between numbers. On the armed-services bill, people can compromise between programs. You can do something in a bipartisan way in regards to tax reform, which has been the subject of bipartisanship for many years during which people have managed to work out reform packages. Reforming the entitlement program will have to be bipartisan, or it won't work. Obviously, the president would like to see some private accounts. The Democrats oppose that. But they have other ideas. With this issue, I suspect you might be able to find a compromise that reflects the views of both parties.

Olympia Snowe calls you a “consensus-forging leader.” How'd you get that title?

You know, it's a matter of trying to work with people you have essential disagreements with and trying to find areas of agreement in which to forge a compromise. And I was able to do that in a number of areas. However, I will say there are certain things you're not going to compromise on. When you come down to things such as judicial nominations, where people are pro-choice and pro-life, and health reform, where some are pro–government programs and others are pro–private-health-insurance programs, there are substantial differences, and people are very partisan. They are not going to change their fundamental philosophical views on bedrock issues, and you will have major battles over them. And I'm not sure that's not necessarily bad.

In November, there was a breakfast hosted for newly elected senators where they talked about bipartisanship. What would be your advice?

Get to know people on both sides of the aisle. Go out of your way to find out what they believe and what makes them tick. If you have a personal relationship, it makes it easier when stressful subjects come up and you're trying to reach a compromise.

Tara McKelvey is a Prospect senior editor.