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Who says the parties can’t agree on anything?
They can and do. It just takes time
On June 24 Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of senators came to terms on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. “We have a deal,” Biden told reporters. Republican Rob Portman, standing next to the Democratic president, chimed, “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we came up with a good compromise.”
In the flush of the accomplishment (which still had to survive votes of both houses), Biden and Portman might have been forgiven for not mentioning the historic nature of the agreement, or for failing to note the underlying truth it reveals about American democracy.
Infrastructure used to be called “internal improvements.” In that earlier day - the first half of the nineteenth century - the question wasn’t how much the federal government should spend on roads, bridges, canals and the like, but whether the federal government had the constitutional authority to spend anything at all on them.
Henry Clay said it did. Clay entered politics as a Jeffersonian Republican, which should have made him a skeptic on federal authority. The Jeffersonians were strict constructionists, contending that what the Constitution did not explicitly authorize, the federal government could not do. Jefferson himself bent the rule to purchase Louisiana from France, judging the real-estate deal of the century a bargain too good to pass up simply because the Constitution was silent on adding new territory to the Union.
Clay wanted to eliminate the rule. He was a nationalist, which in that era meant nation-builder, and he thought nothing built a nation more effectively than good roads. “We are not legislating for this moment only, or for the present generation,” Clay told the House of Representatives. “Our acts must embrace a wider scope” - reaching clear across the continent. Roads, funded by the federal government, would knit it all together. “Could then a better basis for the Union, a stronger tie to connect the various parts of the country together, be conceived?”
Andrew Jackson was a Jeffersonian too, but more orthodox than Clay. And after Clay got Congress to approve federal funding for a road from Maysville, Kentucky, to Lexington, Kentucky, Jackson as president vetoed the measure. Jackson professed to support better roads in principle, but he could find no authorization in the Constitution for the federal government to undertake the building, especially when the road in question lay entirely within one state - and that state Kentucky, home of Jackson’s archrival Clay.
Said Jackson, in his veto message: “If it be the wish of the people that the construction of roads and canals should be conducted by the Federal Government, it is not only highly expedient but indispensably necessary that a previous amendment of the Constitution, delegating the necessary power and defining and restricting its exercise with reference to the sovereignty of the States, should be made. Without it nothing extensively useful can be effected.”
Jackson’s diffidence sounds quaint, almost perverse, to twenty-first century ears. But that’s the historical lesson to be drawn from the nineteenth-century fight over infrastructure. As the country continued to grow, efficient transportation and communication came to be seen as more and more necessary, and the case for federal funding more and more obvious. The Constitution was never amended in the way Jackson envisioned; instead agreement emerged between the parties that infrastructure was included in the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution as written. What had been a bitter fight (on his deathbed, Jackson responded to a question as to what he’d do differently could he live again, by saying he’d shoot Henry Clay) simply dissolved into consensus.
Many other deeply divisive issues have been similarly resolved. Republicans denounced the Social Security Act of 1935 as creeping communism, but in less than a generation Republican Dwight Eisenhower told diehards who wanted to repeal it that they needed to have their heads examined. (Eisenhower was also the president who signed the Interstate Highway Act, the biggest infrastructure measure in history until then.) Medicare was called medical socialism by conservatives in the 1960s; within a couple of decades they embraced it almost as enthusiastically as liberals, because they knew their constituents depended on it. Gay marriage was one of the most polarizing issues in American life as as recently as a decade ago; now it’s taken for granted. Isolationists and interventionists battled over foreign policy for generations before Pearl Harbor made interventionists of them all.
The lesson is that Americans of different political persuasions can come to agreement on fundamental issues, although the process can take a long time. And when agreement is finally reached, the parties find something new to disagree about.
Which lends the impression that all the parties do is disagree. This is understandable, since the parties are in constant disagreement. But it’s misleading, because it masks the agreements already reached.
Which in turn suggests that the parties deliberately highlight the disagreements. Indeed they do. Disagreement is what parties are for. If the parties ever agreed on most things, there would be no need for parties.
And the need for parties is one thing the two parties always agree on.