Voters claim they want more bipartisanship, but in our politics, reaching across the aisle involves risks too great for it to become commonplace.
Indian Wells, Calif. — Late last year, Alexander Sammon of The American Prospect contended that the Koch political network had effectively betrayed Louisiana’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, after a period of effective bipartisan cooperation. The network’s flagship group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), had worked closely with Edwards and lawmakers from both parties on legislation banning a Jim Crow–era law that allowed for split-jury verdicts. “One would think that after Edwards played nice and advanced the legislative agenda of the Koch empire, he would have the backing of their imperious political machine going into Saturday’s election, or at least would have earned himself a non-aggression pact,” Sammon wrote. “But that’s not the case.”
It’s worth noting the transitive property through which the Koch network allegedly turned against Edwards: Koch Industries, the legally separate family business that is one of the network’s main funding sources, was a top-ten donor to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn was spending money to help GOP gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone beat Edwards. Edwards ultimately won reelection, 51 percent to 48 percent. But even if Charles Koch had called up the RGA and said, “Hey, I really like John Bel Edwards, don’t run any ads against him,” it is unlikely the request would’ve been granted. And a pledge not to use any Koch Industries donation money to target Edwards would be pointless, because money is fungible: Koch money paying for ads in other states would allow donations that would have been used in those states to be used against Edwards in Louisiana. (For what it’s worth, there are some indications that Koch-affiliated groups did hold their fire; Americans for Prosperity’s Louisiana chapter didn’t have much to say about the governor or Rispone last year, on Twitter or Facebook.)
All that said, Sammon’s argument does raise the question of just how much issue-based advocacy, with no regard for party, can thrive in an era of extraordinarily polarized politics.
Every year, the Koch network holds its winter meeting here in Indian Wells, and every year, Charles Koch addresses the attendees and quotes Frederick Douglass: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” Last year’s meeting showcased the network’s partnership with Van Jones on the First Step Act, the signature criminal-justice-reform bill, which once would’ve been unthinkable: Phil Kerpen, then the director of policy for AFP, had led the charge for Jones’s dismissal from the Obama administration in 2009, and Jones had attended a protest against AFP and the Koch brothers back in 2011.
So, yes, the Koch network lives by Douglass’s words: It is willing to cross party lines and work with anyone, even someone who is its opponent on every other issue, if it advances a cause it holds dear. But once its alliances have achieved their purpose, they dissolve; the Koch groups don’t believe they owe any elected official long-term loyalty.
Even long-time friends of the network have occasionally come under its fire. In early 2017, when the network’s traditional GOP allies in Congress flirted with a “border-adjustment tax” — essentially a new tax on imported goods — Koch-group leaders ripped the idea, calling it “just a tax that’s going to be passed on to people who shouldn’t be taxed,” and “a huge new burden to consumers.” One Koch-organization leader joked that his congressional allies had suddenly become protectionist socialists.
On paper, the strategy of forging alliances of convenience and discarding them when they’ve run their course has worked well for the Koch network, and we might have a better system of government and politics if everyone followed that approach. But a lot of people in American politics, prominent among them President Trump, want or expect loyalty — to say nothing of the short-term political costs that cross-party alliances can carry. Earlier this year, Joe Biden’s Democratic rivals ripped into him for romanticizing his working relationship with segregationist Southern senators. More broadly, many left-wing opponents of Biden have argued that he’s naïve in believing he will be able to reach significant agreements with congressional Republicans. Any Democrat aspiring to be a state attorney general has to think twice about allying with pro-lifers; the Democratic Attorneys General Association has said it will not support any candidate who is pro-life. It would go too far to say that any attempt at reaching across the aisle is inherently a political liability, but there are certainly loud factions in our political world who want to make that the case.
Each temporary alliance represents a chance to get something done that otherwise wouldn’t be doable, but it also represents a potential wave of attack ads in the next primary, ads in which someone accuses you of working with or “cozying up to” someone detested by your party. And as Edwards learned, past temporary allies aren’t necessarily going to rush to help you out in your hour of need.
A political environment in which temporary alliances with traditional opponents became commonplace and involved minimal political risk would probably lead to a lot more legislation getting passed, for better or worse. But the dominant question in primaries these days is not, as Bobby Rush asked about young Barack Obama, “Just what’s he done? I mean, what’s he done?” It’s this: “Is he sufficiently opposed to our detestable adversaries?”