Beltway institutionalists have lamented that members of both parties no longer get together for a drink, and hard-headed cynics have accused the institutionalists for being drunk on nostalgia.
As political polarization has ratcheted up over the last several years, the cynics had the better of the argument. But Sen. Joe Manchin’s houseboat may be big enough to tip the scales.
Since Manchin bought Almost Heaven in late 2013 for $220,000, the 65-foot yacht is not only where Manchin rests his head in D.C. It’s also one of the few spots for bipartisan senatorial socializing in D.C.
In fact, Sen. Chris Coons credits the boat for the successful negotiation on the bipartisan infrastructure bill expected to clear the Senate this week. Coons told The Washington Post, “The core group that worked on this infrastructure bill has been socializing on the boat together for a long time. The bill probably would have fallen apart, after there were some strong crosscurrents, if not for the trust and relationships that were built, including during time on the boat.”
For some, the time offshore with West Virginia’s senior senator has lasted nearly a decade. When he first came to the Senate in 2010, he was already part owner of a slightly smaller yacht, Black Tie. In early 2013, senatorial soirees on that boat were credited for Manchin’s bipartisan compromise on background checks for gun sales. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was reportedly a “frequent visitor” at that time. Manchin remarked in 2014, after he got Almost Heaven, that now-Senate Majority Leader Chuck “Schumer loves it so much … [he] thinks it’s his boat.”
But for all those years, Manchin’s boat parties didn’t produce much concrete bipartisanship. Even the background check deal was filibustered.
Manchin wasn’t the first person to try to bring back bipartisan socializing. Thirteen years before his arrival in the Senate, members of Congress tried periodic “Bipartisan Congressional Retreats.” The cross-aisle acrimony during the Bill Clinton presidency prompted about half of the House to go to the first one. But between the first and the second retreat was an impeachment trial, and the retreats petered out during the George W. Bush administration. In 2007, Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth said Washington was no longer “fun” and had become “more partisan, less tolerant, and unabashedly focused on doing well rather than doing good.” Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn said to Orth, “In terms of entertaining being partisan, it started with Clinton,” and then when Post publisher and socialite Katherine Graham died in 2001, “that was the end of bipartisan entertaining.”
Then in 2013, Chris Matthews popularized the notion that an after-hours bipartisan drink can go a long way legislatively when he wrote a book about the relationship between President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Matthews, who was once an aide to O’Neill, was accused of myth-making, since they had plenty of bruising fights and harsh words for each other. But Matthews saw the relationship as “cordial and fighting,” as well as productive: “Tip would say, ‘I’ll cut a deal on Social Security if you let me focus on taxing the wealthier people.’ There was always a deal. It’s not that they always found common ground, it’s that they each got something out of every deal.”
Matthews’ book was published at the beginning of President Obama’s contentious second term, which was capped with the partisan blockade of his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. And that was followed by the bombastic Donald Trump presidency. So when Joe Biden waxed nostalgic about bipartisanship during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary — with stories about breaking bread with segregationist senators — many Democrats considered Biden to be deeply naïve, ignorant and out of touch (albeit not enough to deny him the party nomination).
The problem with nostalgia is that it can over-romanticize the past to the point of inaccuracy. As political scientist Julia Azari has observed, “By some measures, the United States is more partisan than ever, but that more peaceful and unified past, that golden age of unity, was … pretty much never.” What is different about much of America’s past is that many brutal political fights happened “within parties.” So there was conflict, it just wasn’t as partisan. Today, the two major parties have largely been “sorted” ideologically, making our conflicts more partisan.
But America’s raucous, and sometimes bloody, political history doesn’t negate the fact that strong personal relationships can increase the odds of successful legislation. Friendships between politicians can’t erase fundamental ideological differences, but they can build trust, open up dialogue and create opportunities to find overlap in their agendas.
Many pessimists assumed the current crop of Republicans would never accept a compromise on a major Democratic priority, even on a historically bipartisan issue like infrastructure. But the relationships forged on Manchin’s boat, over many years, convinced enough senators they had reason to try.
Cynics still have reason to scoff, especially progressive cynics who want bigger, bolder policies. Manchin’s houseboat strategy has helped strike a compromise on just one major bill in 11 years. And it’s a compromise, like many compromises, that falls well short of what some believe to be necessary. Bipartisanship often means constraint, and constraint is not always sufficient to solve the problem at hand.
But one need not love the bipartisan infrastructure bill to learn a lesson from how it was made. A small group of negotiators were able to agree on more infrastructure investment than some thought possible, because their personal relationships opened the door to more possibilities, and kept it open despite the inevitable partisan blowback.