Bipartisan: the Word of the Year

PBPC director Marc Stier made these remarks to the Press Club of Pennsylvania on Monday, March 13, 2023.

“Bipartisan” is the word of the year in Pennsylvania.

Leaders such as Governor Shapiro, President Pro Tem Ward, and Speaker McClinton are extolling bipartisanship.

And how could they not do so? The extreme and growing partisan division we have seen in this country since 2016 is scary.

Journalists like you and policy wonks like me have a personal stake in bipartisanship.

I’d love to run what you call a left of center policy shop that can hand a 20-page, carefully researched report to a Republican legislator without him or her immediately dismissing it unread because it contains “liberal facts.”

I’m sure many reporters want to go back to the days when it is possible to do Democrats said / Republicans said reporting without worrying about whether you have an ethical responsibility to call out the lies of the Trump-inspired Right.

But our parochial interests aside, all of us who have thought about how liberal democratic governments live and die know that the enmity that has divided politicians and voters into warring camps is dangerous. Political regimes of the past have looked amazingly solid until a few weeks before their collapse. Danger signs that warn about the potential collapse of the United States as we have know it have been much in evidence since 2016.

So I am cheering for efforts on all sides to recreate bipartisan comity in Harrisburg.

But I want to talk about why bipartisanship is going to be difficult, though not impossible to achieve.

I’m going to frame my argument today from the perspective of the Shapiro administration. We all recognize that while the General Assembly disposes, the governor proposes. Whether or not we limit partisan division in our state depends on whether the Shapiro administration’s efforts to do so are successful.

There is, I believe, a tension in what appears to be the strategy of the Shapiro administration. This tension is the result of the Republican Party itself being sharply divided into two factions.

One is a traditional business wing, whose agenda is largely set by the Chamber of Commerce, that wants low taxes, low government spending, and low wages.

The other is the right-wing activist wing motivated by what we politely call the social or cultural issues. Today the cultural Right is focused on opposition to what it calls “wokeism,” that is opposition to efforts to recognize the continued barriers to the advance of Black people, women, sexual minorities, and immigrants. Their bete noire is always crime and abortion, which at least are serious issues. But often it is something else as well. Last year, it was the non-existent threat of critical race theory. Today it is the threat of transgenderism including drag performances, as if vaudeville and burlesque, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Some Like It Hot, Colonel Klinger and Tootsie, could undermine our moral fibre, let alone lead young people to make the no doubt wrenching decision to change their gender identification.

Right-wing appeals to cultural issues have a long history going back to the know-nothings of the 19th century and including Nixon’s complaint that George McGovern supported acid, amnesty, and abortion.

There is serious debate about why this tendency in our politics became so extreme in 2016. Some folks, such as Tom Frank and Bernie Sanders, argued that Republican politicians were encouraging working and middle-class people to displace their economic frustrations onto the advances of Black people, women, and immigrants. That is not true in any simple way. Racism and sexism are not merely opinions or attitudes generated by unscrupulous political leaders. It is only because they are deeply embedded in our society that they can be brought to the surface, in the first instance by not quite rapid enough, but certainly substantial, changes in the place of Black people and women in our culture and economy and, in the second instance, by the willingness of Donald Trump to oppose those changes in vulgar ways.

But while I believe the simple version of the Sanders-Frank thesis is wrong, there is a deeper version of if that is correct. White people who had lost income or were suffering economic distress were not more likely to vote for Trump in 2016. But both rich and poor white people who lived in communities that were suffering from economic distress were more likely to vote for Trump. Look at a map of counties that Trump won in Pennsylvania and you will see that they largely overlap the old rural and industrial counties that have been rocked by economic devastation.

Josh Shapiro’s rhetoric as a candidate and governor often points to how much Pennsylvanians have in common, no matter where they live and what they look like. He is right. My organization will soon show that economic indicators like unemployment, job growth, and SNAP and Medicaid take-up rates, as well as social indicators like deaths from suicide or drug overdose and rates of divorce or teen age parenthood, are very high in rural counties that voted for Donald Trump. Those indicators reach levels similar to those found in low-income, urban, Black and white communities.

So, to oversimplify just a bit, Republicans in the General Assembly get elected by doing the economic bidding of their big business supporters who reward them with large campaign donations with which they make television and print ads that use the cultural issues to gin up hatred of liberals and Democrats among small business people, shopkeepers, and distressed workers.

There is, of course, a tension between those two groups. The cultural issue Right may eventually recognize that Republicans in office don’t actually do much about the social and cultural changes that worry them. Banning abortion and books in schools and legislating against transgender people, as horrible as they are, won’t return us to the 1950s. And Republican legislators in office always put the economic interests of big business first, which is why Republican school funding policies result in a growing property tax burden on their cultural issue voters—which Republicans blame on Democrats.

That tension in the Republican Party also creates a dilemma for Democrats who hope to pursue bipartisan policies.

As a candidate and in his first budget, Governor Shapiro has tried to appeal to both groups of Republicans, if not to win over large numbers of them then= to temper their opposition to him, win election and, now, clear the way to an easy budget year.
The budget presented by the governor last week offered bipartisanship from the top down by giving Chamber of Commerce Republicans at least rhetorical support for faster corporate tax cuts, as well as a budget that raised no new taxes and increased spending by less than inflation—even at a time when his Democratic supporters were, rightly in my view, seeking far greater spending on K-12 education in order to meet the moral and constitutional requirement of fully and fairly funding our schools.

But he also offered bipartisanship from the bottom up by giving the cultural issue Right more spending on the state police and other anti-crime policies.

To both groups he offered another, really important new initiative: work force training and other supports designed to help businesses create new, high-wage jobs. This policy initiative can be transformative because it will help communities all over the state, including distressed communities in both the Democratic urban base and in the Republican rural base.

But there are difficulties with pursing bipartisanship from both the top down and bottom up. The tension between the two wings of the Republican Party is a big problem for a Democrat trying to reach out to both wings.

The theme of my preliminary analysis of the governor’s budget released last week was that he had the right priorities but did not put enough money behind them. And that is my worry today. A workforce development strategy to create high-paying jobs in rural, suburban, and urban areas can be an effective as both policy and politics. But to really be transformative it will take far more investment than the governor has so far committed. And it will not be sufficient to generate economic recovery in either urban and rural communities if it is not supplemented by investment in pre-k, K-12, and higher education. Our failure to educate Pennsylvanians at all levels remains the largest barrier we face to economic growth.

It’s easy to make modest new investments when you have $13 billion sitting in the bank. As I pointed out recently, the surplus will dwindle over the next six or seven years as structural deficits return. Thus, it’s going to be hard to make major new investments in workforce training and education at all levels without raising taxes.
If the governor wants to pursue initiatives that appeal to working-class and middle-class Pennsylvanians, some of whom vote for Democrats and some of who vote for Republicans, he will ultimately need to raise taxes on the top 1% of Pennsylvanians who pay income and wealth taxes at less than half the rate of working people and the middle class.

The problem with this approach is not that raising taxes on just the wealthy is prohibited by the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Our Fair Share tax proposal is constitutional and would cut taxes for 50% of Pennsylvanians while raising almost $2.5 billion, have from the top 1%. We will soon propose a very modest tax on intangible wealth that would raise billions while also reducing property tax rates where they are far above the state average.

Funds raised from these taxes could finance a program to meet our constitutional responsibility to fund K-12 education equitably while also investing far more in workforce training in support of businesses that will generate new high-wage jobs.
While these programs would ultimately build political support for the administration among working and middle-class people in urban, suburban, and rural communities, it will take some time. Working class people in both urban and rural areas are deeply skeptical about government because they believe, rightly, that they have mostly been abandoned by both parties. Over three to five years, however, the benefits of these programs would become evident. One result might be to reduce the rage that powers liberal-bashing among cultural issue extremists over time.

The political barrier to this policy approach, of course, is that Republicans in the General Assembly, and especially the Senate, are far more attached to the economic (3) interests of the corporate wing of the party than those of the working- and middle-class supporters of the cultural issue ight. These legislators will not only resist taxes on the wealthy but will likely respond by ratcheting up their appeals to the anti-woke movement by playing on fears of Black crime and transgender people.
Sadly, they are likely to do that no matter what Governor Shapiro does. And so will Republican presidential candidates in 2024.

So Governor Shapiro will at some point find road blocks in securing the bipartisan support for a stronger program of what I have called bipartisanhip from the bottom up.

Awareness of this constraint no doubt explains why Governor Shapiro’s first budget offered bold policies ideas with too little funding.
These problems cannot be solved easily. But I’m not totally pessimistic.
Over the next few years, the governor can expect to still have billions in the bank. He could spend it faster.

He will have a Democratic House, public policy advocates like my friends and myself, and a growing and unified political base that wants him to strongly embrace bipartisanship from the bottom up by taking bolder steps to meet the demands of the recent Commonwealth court decision on education funding and to invest more in his workforce development and other proposals designed to create high-wage jobs.
He may recognize, like President Biden has—and as our poll last year dramatically showed—that the bottom-up approach and raising taxes on the very rich are enormously popular.

And there will be the possibility that his embrace of both kinds of bipartisanship this year and next can win more Democratic seats in both houses of the General Assembly in 2024.

Most importantly, Josh Shapiro will still be a governor who has political insights and leadership qualities we have not seen in the office for many years. I have some confidence that he will find a way t finesse the tensions I have identified.

My expectation, then, is that in the next few years we will see a gradual shift in the Shapiro administration to more strongly embrace the policies I have called bipartisanship from the bottom up. In doing so, he will show the whole country an effective path toward overcoming extreme partisan division.

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