Spring has sprung in Washington. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Love is in the air. And in the form of partnerships among unlikely leaders, we appear to be emerging from a long period of pitched partisan battles and congressional paralysis. Placed in its proper historical context, the stage is set for more to happen in the next four years than in the previous ten.
Big things rarely happen in government without the embrace of the party not traditionally associated with the issue. Bill Clinton overcame labor resistance to NAFTA, signed a bill overhauling welfare, as well as a balanced budget, while his Republican successor massively expanded the size and role of the Department of Education while creating a new prescription drug entitlement. But the first examples of this go back to the first days of Congress.
In Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights, and the Election that Saved a Nation, I chronicled the tumultuous events stretching from independence to the establishment of the Constitution. Every election cycle it seems we hear that we are witnesses to the nastiest, most negative campaigns in history, accompanied by hand wringing eulogies for the death of American civility. Such post-mortems ignore that the battles of early American politics (yes, the time of our revered Founding Fathers) make the tiffs of the Obama presidency look like a Girl Scout jamboree.
The Constitution of Philadelphia, which now enjoys a sanctified status, was the most controversial issue of the day. It had itself been the product of compromises big and small, made by men of different ideologies representing wildly different constituencies. Small states wanted the equal representation they had enjoyed in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Big states wanted representation equal to their numbers. Southern states wanted protections for their favorite institution, and to count their slaves as people, if only for the purposes of the Census. But by the end, only three delegates present at the convention refused to sign.
But the Constitution inflamed an Anti-Federalist movement throughout the country. This opposition to the Constitution, which posed a serious threat to the survival of the nation, was centered around the lack of a Bill of Rights. The Constitution passed by three votes in New York; a motion to adjourn failed by eight votes in Virginia, where it ultimately slipped through by ten.
Those two states, the population, cultural, and political capitals of the young country followed their slender ratifications by calling for a new convention. On the day of George Washington's inauguration, the states of North Carolina and Rhode Island remained outside the Union.
It even divided close friends James Madison and James Monroe, who had theretofore worked together against the Articles of Confederation. Madison, the chief author of the Constitution, was a Federalist who believed that the Bill of Rights was superfluous and potentially dangerous. Monroe, who had nearly died in the War for Independence, feared the new national government might be trading one monarchy for another.
The two ended up contesting a seat in the first House of Representatives, the only time two future presidents ran against each other for a down-ballot office. Madison won, because of a promise he made to seek a Bill of Rights in the new Congress. Not on policy grounds, but because he became convinced that unless and until these protections were added to the Constitution, that many serious people would not be reconciled to the new government.
Against this volatile backdrop, Madison forced the Federalist majority to not only consider but pass a Bill of Rights, which brought the outlying states into the Union, and put an end to the movement to scrap the Constitution. That same Congress would pass the first great compromise before the Civil War, settling the national capital in the south while assuming the debts of the states, a provision popular in the north.
What does this mean for us? It means Sen. Marco Rubio's name on an immigration bill, and Sen. Pat Toomey's on a gun control bill, are very propitious signs for fans of that legislation. It means that President Obama's mere mention of the words "chained CPI," which would gradually help bring Social Security benefits in line with revenues, is a very big deal.
Could fundamental and badly needed tax reform be far behind? We'll find out soon enough if this is a missed opportunity or a pivotal chapter in history, but as a number of unlikely partners team up on the most intractable, controversial issues of the day, there is reason for hope.
Chris DeRose is the author of "Congressman Lincoln: the Making of America's Greatest President" and "Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights, and the Election that Saved a Nation." He is a political strategist, attorney, and law professor. Get in touch with the author at www.chrisderosebooks.com or @chrisderose.
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