April 19 was the day America lost the fight against COVID-19. It was on that day that two hospital workers in Denver stood in front of a truck with people heading to the Capitol to protest the state’s stay-at-home order. Suddenly there was clarity. You were either with the hospital workers or the protestors in the truck. That was it; no in-between, no confusion. The lines had been drawn. COVID was — like every other issue in this Year of Our Lord 2020 — absolutely partisan.
This, of course, was not by accident. Partisan leaders on each side recognized the value in making COVID political, and went all-in hoping their position would better resonate with voters. Consider the Great Shutdown debate. Republicans arguing it was about the economy, and Democrats about health and safety. Subtlety was thrown to the wind, as nuance is not helpful when trying to stoke people’s emotions and further drive them into embittered tribes.
Predictably, today’s debate over COVID-19, which should be discussed seriously as a national crisis impacting both our health care and economy, is just another toxic mess full of vile rhetoric and misinformation designed only to better each party’s chances in November. Take, for instance, the ghoulish joy liberals express at infection rates in the South because these states’ leaders dared to defy Leftist orthodoxy on COVID shutdowns; or how many anti-Trumpers openly hoped the president’s COVID infection would remove him from office, and perhaps even from this physical world.
To characterize this situation as unhealthy is an extreme understatement. There really are no winners in such an environment. Citizens are held hostage as any meaningful progress in Congress grinds to a halt, with members either too stubborn or too scared to reach across the aisle on even the most limited and obvious of compromise solutions. Basic human civility among colleagues becomes “betrayal,” as when the hug between Sens. Lindsey Graham and Dianne Feinstein after an intense but respectful confirmation hearing resulted in calls to “cancel” Feinstein.
It has not always been like this. In an era not so long ago but which now feels like ancient history, I served as a member of Congress when, despite deep philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats, we managed to find solutions to America’s problems. In fact, in one year when the GOP controlled Congress and Democrats occupied the White House, we cut taxes, reformed welfare, and balanced the federal budget.
Of course, it helped that in those days we had leaders like Newt Gingrich, who despite the political disagreements with President Bill Clinton, was willing and able to reach meaningful compromises, even as both leaders claimed to be protecting their base constituencies. While Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi were both in Congress in those days, just one generation later neither can direct anything but bile at any GOP member of either the House or the Senate.
Can you even imagine today doing what Newt Gingrich and then-Minority Leader Dick Gebhardt did at the start of the 105th Congress — hold a bipartisan congressional retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania for all House Members, their spouses and children? This occurred a mere two years after the majority in the House switched from Democrat to Republican for the first time in 40 years, and as tempers were still somewhat raw as a result.
However, the simple act of a bipartisan retreat forced members from one party to be in close proximity to their counterparts on the other side of the aisle for three days, away from the partisan halls of the Capitol. Democratic and Republican Members ate, talked, and socialized (including dancing) together over the course of a weekend. Members from one party were able to see their counterparts from the other party not as one-dimensional cut-outs to be shouted down and belittled, but as human beings with strengths and weaknesses, and as parents and families just like theirs.
The lessons from Hershey, PA in 1997 are lessons badly needed today for members of Congress, the president, and citizens alike. We must make America civil again if we are to have any hope of breaking these cycles of partisan brinkmanship, in which the goal is not a functional democracy, but rather complete control of government and everything it touches; where the winning side has free reign to ram through whatever it wants. In the short term this may seem necessary to balance out the changes of the last regime, but ultimately draws the country ever closer to all-encompassing authoritarianism as such “balancing” becomes increasingly more extreme — even inhuman, as in wishing COVID on your political enemies.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7 District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. He now serves as President of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation based in Atlanta, Georgia.