Bipartisan Politicians: A Look Back at a Near-Extinct Species

As evidenced by the behavior of the 112th Congress, the ideological chasm separating Democrats and Republicans has never been wider.  In New Jersey (a state not typically known for fiery rhetoric and extremist politics), for example, one third of Republicans believed in 2009 that Obama was not born in the United States while one third of Democrats thought that George Bush had knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks before they happened.

Indeed, there is not a single Congressional Democrat more conservative than any Republican, and not a single Congressional Republican more liberal than any Democrat.

We live in such polarized times that it is often difficult to remember the not-so-far-away past of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats.  This post will pay homage to those politicians of the last few decades most willing to cross the aisle and work for bipartisan solutions.


Larry McDonald

In 2004, political scientist Keith Poole published a study in the American Journal of Political Science examining the ideologies of the 3,320 men and women that served in Congress between 1937 and 2002.  It rated them all on a scale of 0 to 1 (0 being the most liberal and 1 being the most conservative).  As one might guess, Democrats were typically clustered around the lower end and middle of the spectrum while Republicans were grouped toward the higher end.  There were exceptions, of course, but none quite as glaring as Larry McDonald.

McDonald, a Georgia Democrat who served in the House of Representatives from 1975 to his death in 1983, was ranked the second most conservative member of House and Senate of the 3,320 surveyed.  He was pro-life, anti-gay rights, pro-states’ rights and against money for foreign aid.  He was an advocate of the gold standard and once described as “the leading anti-Communist in Congress.”  McDonald allegedly had more than 200 guns stockpiled in his official district office.

Moreover, McDonald received a perfect score of 100 from the American Conservative Union every single year of his Congressional tenure except one, when he received a 95.  (By comparison, Rick Santorum has a lifetime ACU rating of 88 and John McCain has a lifetime rating of 83.)  McDonald consistently received perfect ratings from pro-life and gun rights groups and was the second President of the John Birch Society.

McDonald often supported the initiatives of Republican President Ronald Reagan and worked with Congressional Republicans to reduce money for foreign aid.  (“To me,” McDonald once said, “foreign aid is an area that you not only can cut but you could take a chainsaw to in terms of reductions.”)  He frequently clashed with members of his own party, saying, “The national [Democratic] party is a bunch of kooks.”  In 1978, the Seventh District Democratic Committee went as far as to pass a resolution to “censure” McDonald “for the dishonorable and despicable act of calling himself a Democrat.”

So why did McDonald remain a Democrat until his 1983 death in a tragic plane crash?  “I am a historic Democrat,” he famously remarked, arguing that he had “no problems” with his local Democratic Party.  Although it is unlikely he would still be a Democrat if he were alive today, it is hard to imagine a politician better representative of the conservative Democrat tradition than Larry McDonald.


Jacob Javits

A liberal New York Republican, Jacob Javits was a natural ideological ally with today’s Democratic Party.  But the Democrats’ corrupt Tammany Hall machine so repulsed Javits that he forever swore off the party.  Nonetheless, Javits demonstrated a remarkable ability to work across the aisle.  (In Poole’s 2004 study, Javits was found to be the most left-leaning Republican.)

Javits believed that the government had a responsibility to actively work to improve the lives of his constituents.  As a member of the House, he condoned then-President Harry Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Bill and strongly endorsed anti-poll tax and anti-segregation legislation.  Unhappy with what he believed was a witch-hunt atmosphere during the Cold War, Javits also spoke up against the House Un-American Activities Committee.

After he was elected to the Senate, he continued backing Presidents from both parties.  He supported President Eisenhower’s foreign policy programs as well as most of President Johnson’s Great Society.  Up until his primary defeat in 1980 (at the hands of a more conservative Republican), Javits continued to work across the aisle, helping President Jimmy Carter negotiate the Camp David Accords.

Javits rejected the notion that political parties should be ideologically pure and that differing opinions should not be tolerated.  Until the end of his life, he remained a proud Republican in what he liked to believe was the progressive tradition of Teddy Roosevelt.


Mark Hatfield

Mark Hatfield grew up in Utah during the Great Depression.  He first came in contact with politics came at the age of 10, when his mother encouraged him to campaign for President Herbert Hoover’s re-election campaign.  He remained a loyal Republican from those days until the end of his life, after serving thirty years as a US Senator.

Hatfield began his career in the Oregon House and served two terms as Governor in the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1964, he gave the keynote address at the Republican National Convention, imploring his party to shy away from the far-right policies of Barry Goldwater.  As a Senator, Hatfield often sparred with the Nixon and Reagan administrations.  He opposed the death penalty, government-sponsored school prayer and supported civil rights for minorities (including gays).

Hatfield worked closely with Sen. Ted Kennedy in the 1980s and repeatedly clashed with Republicans regarding military spending and intervention.  In 1995, Hatfield was the only Republican to oppose a balanced budget amendment, which would have passed if not for him.  Following the vote, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole affirmed that Hatfield would face no consequences for his defection: “I think everybody agreed that you can’t have a litmus test with every vote.”  It is difficult to imagine such a situation today.


Fritz Hollings

Long after the state drifted into the Republican column in Presidential elections, South Carolina continued to send a remarkable number of Democrats to Congress.  Perhaps the foremost such Democrat was Ernest Fritz Hollings, who served as the state’s Senator from 1966 to 2005.

Hollings represented the conservative southern Democrat tradition and remained popular in the state until his retirement.  He was one of the primary sponsors of the Gramm-Hollings-Rudman Act, an attempt to limit government spending.  Hollings also voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and was one of only two Democratic Senators to vote against the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

Hollings routinely worked with Republicans to reduce government spending.  He maintained a good relationship with South Carolina’s senior Senator, Strom Thurmond, with whom he served for 36 years.  Although today Hollings is more than 90 years old, he continues to advocate for his bipartisan political beliefs, often contributing to The Huffington Post.


Charles Mathias

Another prominent liberal Republican was Charles Mathias, who served as a Congressman and Senator from Maryland until 1987.  In his first Congressional campaign in 1960, Mathias declared that public education was one of his chief goals.  Despite being accused in the primary of having “worst Republican record in [the state legislature in] Annapolis,” Mathias handily won the election and aligned himself with the GOP’s liberal wing.

In the US Senate, Mathias repeatedly clashed with conservative members of his party.  In 1969, he threated a “rebellion” unless the Nixon administration worked harder to protect civil rights.  And in 1976, he even considered an insurgent Presidential campaign in order to stave off the increasing influence of Ronald Reagan’s breed of far-right Republicanism.  During his first Senate term, Mathias voted with his party only 31 percent of the time and was rated more liberal than all but three Democrats.

In his later Senate terms, Mathias continued working with Democrats including Adlai Stevenson III and Birch Bayh.  His support for abortion rights and other repeated breaks with his party led members of the Republican leadership to withhold chairmanships from him, even when he had the requisite seniority.  Nonetheless, Mathias never sincerely contemplated switching parties, believing it was more constructive to change the GOP from the inside.  Said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker on Mathias’ retirement: “He was fair, flexible, concerned, able to rise above partisanship but not above responsibility.”


Published by Eric Stern

Eric Stern, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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