“Bridge builder.” A description pinned on politicians who seek to work with the opposing party. In this highly polarized political climate, it’s become the ultimate compliment among those pining for any semblance of bipartisanship.
In paying tribute to former Sen. Edward Brooke (R) of Massachusetts, who died this month, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (D) said: “A fighter for equal opportunity and a bridge builder between opposing parties, Senator Brooke embraced optimism and change, constantly seeking ways to lift people up and bring people together.”
Similarly, when longtime Illinois Republican lawmaker Rosemary Mulligan died recently, outgoing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn eulogized her as “an energetic bridge-builder who made Illinois a better place.”
With the new Congress getting under way, the media is now casting about for potential new bridge-builders. On the right, Washington Post conservative pundit Jennifer Rubin cited Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina as one possibility. “If he can be a bridge-builder in Congress and check the president’s worst instincts, America will be safer and the world more peaceful,” Rubin wrote.
Meanwhile, Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt wondered if Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia is up to the task. He quoted Kaine as saying that the best political stance is “to be affirmatively proud of who you are and what you are, and then work together.”
It doesn’t always work to give yourself the description, though. In his Senate race last year against Republican Joni Ernst, Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley contended at a debate, “I’m a bridge-builder, not a bridge burner.” But he still lost overwhelmingly.
Presidential candidates invariably seek to claim the mantle. On the campaign trail in 2000, George W. Bush was the ultimate self-described bridge builder; he nabbed the GOP presidential nomination by claiming to be a “uniter, not a divider” – the political rhetorical equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield in the 1980s comedy "Back to School" declaring, “I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover.”
Of course, Barack Obama also campaigned in 2008 as a bridge builder. But once he arrived in the White House, congressional Republicans repeatedly complained about a lack of bipartisan outreach. Obama and fellow Democrats responded that too many Republicans had no interest in building any bridges – in reality, they wanted to blow them up.
As the 2016 campaign gets under way, the term is being revived. Krista Jenkins, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., pointed to Garden State Gov. Chris Christie’s political problems as he contemplates a White House bid in 2016 – one of which already involves a bridge: “Given the governor’s obvious political ambitions, waning support outside his party faithful makes him a tougher sell to voters outside the state who are looking for a bridge builder.”
Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices.