Artur Davis on Life in a Fiercely Partisan House, and Why It Might Not Get Better Any Time Soon

Beginning in 2003, Democrat Artur Davis represented Alabama's 7th District for four terms in Congress. Following a defeat in Alabama's 2010 gubernatorial primary, he retired from politics. Late last year, Davis left the Democratic Party and became an independent.

Davis is currently a Fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics. This conversation took place in his IOP office on February 15th.

MATT BIEBER: It's been clear for a while now that the Republicans and Democrats in Congress are less able to get along and work together than they did in decades past. It also seems like they like each other less. Is that right? What did your day-to-day encounters with Republican colleagues look like?

ARTUR DAVIS: Well, there was a big difference in the level of bipartisan engagement... over the eight years that I served in Congress.

When I got in Congress in 2003, it was a very different political environment from the one that exists today or the one that existed during my last years in Congress. As hard as it is to reconstruct today, President Bush was extremely popular at that time, had a 60+ percent approval rating. Congress had done a number of bipartisan initiatives from No Child Left Behind to the Sarbanes-Oxley financial reform bill. A significant number of Democrats had voted for the Bush tax cuts, and there was almost unanimous support in early 2003 for President Bush's policies on terror [and] the PATRIOT Act. There was even a significant amount of Democratic support for the war in Iraq, but that was a much more controversial proposition.

So, when I arrived in Congress, it was during a time when Democrats and Republicans regularly shared the same political views on important issues, when they regularly worked together even on issues that were deeply controversial, like health care. There was a bipartisan coalition of Ted Kennedy, John Edwards and John McCain who were pushing for something that [is now] long-forgotten, called the Patient's Bill of Rights. That was thought to be a very important area of improving the quality of health care ten years ago. And you had John McCain and John Edwards leading the floor fight from both sides of the aisle. Campaign finance reform, for that matter -- McCain-Feingold united Republicans and Democrats.

By the time I left Congress, there was no significant bipartisan legislative activity -- none. We went from a time that produced a number of bipartisan [bills] to a time in which there were virtually none.

When I first came to the House, most members of Congress went back to their districts and routinely touted the relationships that they'd built across the aisle. It was considered to be good politics for Democrats to go back home and say, "I work with Republicans to get things done," and vice versa. By the time I left, the best politics was members going back to their districts and saying, "I'm standing there fighting the Republicans" or "I'm standing there fighting the Democrats."

This campaign cycle, the Democratic members of Congress facing primaries are not going around talking about the Republicans they work with. They're talking about how they're standing and fighting with Barack Obama to save Medicare and Social Security. The Republicans who are facing primaries are not going back to their districts and talking about the relationships they have with Democrats. They're talking about their efforts to repeal Obamacare and stop Democratic spending.

So, there's been a change in how members describe their work. There's been a change in how members perceive what voters want them to do and be, and it's created a much more hyper-partisan environment. An important thing to point out, there were 63 new Republicans in 2010, and there were about 80 races that were competitive.

It sounds like a lot until you realize that there are 435 districts. Now I will certainly trust you do the math better than me, but subtract 80 from 435 and you're left with in the upper threes - that's the number of districts that were not competitive in one of the most fractious, volatile cycles we've ever seen, and a cycle where Republicans gained more seats than their party had gained since the 1930s.

Most people don't know that, or they know it but never thought about the significance of it. When 350-some seats are not contested, that means that first of all, for the given member of Congress, they're not terribly worried about the Democrat or Republican. They're worried about the person who may be building to challenge them in the primary. If you're a Democrat, you're worried about the guy who is active in Organizing for America, who's out there moving around the grassroots and who's arguing that you're not doing enough to fight Republicans. If you're a Republican, you're [worried about] the young Republican Tea Party activist who's going around saying, "We need a fighter, someone who will hold the line on spending and not someone who's working with those people." So, it causes both sides to structure their politics in a way that's very oriented toward their political base.

MB: How did that shift affect the way that you worked together on a day-to-day basis?

AD: You know, when members perceive there's a political advantage in working across the aisle, it's very easy for members to build social relationships with people across the aisle... Typically in the political world, politics drives social relationships and not the other way around. People often form social relationships with people they work with.

[The full interview is available at The Wheat and Chaff.]