Many commentators seem fascinated, even perplexed, by President Biden’s efforts to define bipartisanship as support from Republican voters instead of from GOP lawmakers.
They seem to have missed the political rhetoric of the last 20 years, while also failing to grasp how bipartisanship works in the public mind.
According to research by Dartmouth’s Sean Westwood, House members regularly invoke the word “bipartisan” in speeches, though there’s no relationship between use of the word by members and their actual participation in bipartisan legislating.
The Obama administration repeatedly called the Affordable Care Act “bipartisan,” offering three rationales:
It included Republican ideas.
President Obama met with Republicans to discuss it.
A single Republican member of the House voted for it.
This last justification — which we might label the “one vote rule”— was sneered at by FactCheck.org but employed by both former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in describing the “bipartisan” legislation each had passed.
Politicians from both parties have worked to drain the term of meaning for years before Biden assumed the presidency.
But how do voters see it?
First, as we have long warned our clients, lots of voters simply don’t know what the word means. Westwood found only a third of voters could define bipartisan.
Asked how good or bad it was, 45 percent gave it a positive rating, while 39 percent were neutral and 16 percent were negative (based on our work, likely confusing “bipartisan” with “partisan”).
A poll we did for the Bipartisan Policy Center, with Republican colleagues at North Star Opinion Research, found 52 percent giving the word “bipartisan” a positive connotation with 35 percent offering a negative evaluation. Only 19 percent were very positive.
But ignorance of the word is not hostility to the concept. We found 57 percent positive about “working across party lines” with 30 percent very positive.
A Monmouth University poll this year found 71 percent of Americans, including 41 percent of Republicans, saying they wanted Republicans in Congress to work with Biden rather than keep him in check.
Voters like the idea of the parties working together to produce bipartisan legislation.
But on this exam, voters are very easy graders — and that’s the key contribution of Westwood’s research.
His experiments found that a spokesperson merely asserting that legislation was bipartisan, without any indication of its actual cross-party appeal, increased public support for the bill and made voters feel it was more moderate. No facts here, just a spokesperson labeling the bill “bipartisan.”
Going one step further, Westwood sought to assess how much difference it made if one could in fact demonstrate real bipartisanship — say a hundred votes from the opposite party.
How much more support does legislation elicit if its sponsor succeeds in bringing 100 colleagues aboard from the opposite party instead of just one? Only another 5 percent.
Just saying a bill is bipartisan is helpful, and getting one vote from the other party is, for the public, a solid case. Getting 100 votes from the other party doesn’t make much of a difference beyond the one. Voters accept the one vote rule.
When the Biden administration describes its proposals as bipartisan, it’s not breaking new ground, but it is using smart messaging that the public buys, even if the press does not.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.