Congress and Partisanship: The Outlook from Dead Center with Former US Congressman, Jason Altmire

Show Notes, Sources and Transcript

August 20, 2020

Did you hear the one about bipartisanship? Two opposing congressmen walk into a town hall…and civil discussion breaks out. 

Hard to believe in the current climate, but former three-term Congressman Jason Altmire recounts the origin and unfortunate demise of these bipartisan town halls in Episode 7, Congress and Partisanship. Author of Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America, Altmire was rated the most centrist member of the U.S. Congress during his three terms, 2007-2013. The Purple Principle discusses a range of issues with Hon. Jason Altmire, including the 2020 election, the Trump presidency, the role of partisan media in both parties, and the deep-rooted psychology underlying polarization.

Guest

Jason Altmire, Former three-term Congressman; Author

Guest Book

Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America, (Sunbury Press, Inc., 2017).

Original music composed by Ryan Adair Rooney.

Electronic Sources

“113th Congress: Pennsylvania Congressional District 18” (Map). U.S. Census Bureau.

“Fourth Congressional District.” Congressman Jason Altmire

John Adams (Oct. 1780). “Letter to Jonathan Jackson.” The Federalist Papers. 

Jason Altmire (11/20/09). “Why I voted no on health reform.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

Jason Altmire (2017). Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do About It. Sunbury Press. 

Clio Andris et. al. (2015). “The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives.” PLoS ONE. 

James Arkin (2/21/20). “McConnell-aligned super PAC-funded group meddling in North Carolina democratic primary.” Politico. 

Blue Dog Coalition. 

Richard E. Cohen & Brian Friel (2/26/10). “2009 Vote Ratings: Politics as Usual.” National Journal.

Nate Cohn (11/5/19). “A Sliver of the Electorate Could Decide 2020. Here’s What Those Voters Want.” The New York Times. 

Rhodes Cook (7/12/18). “Registering by Party: Where the Democrats and Republicans Are Ahead.” UVA Center for Politics. 

Thomas Fitzgerald (4/28/09). “Sen. Arlen Specter will switch parties, run as Democrat in 2010.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Jennifer Haberkorn (6/5/13). “ACA foe now a supporter.” Politico. 

H.R. 2965: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. 111th U.S. Congress

Alex Isenstadt (7/31/09). “Town halls gone wild.” Politico.

“Official Returns: Statewide Election Nov. 4, 2008.” PA Department of State. 

Elaine Kamarck & Alexander R. Podkul (10/23/18). “The 2018 Primaries Project: The ideology of primary voters.” Brookings Institution. 

Kathleen Kennedy & Emily Pronin. (2008). When Disagreement Gets Ugly: Perceptions of Bias and the Escalation of Conflict. Personality & social psychology bulletin. 34. 833-48. 

McGhee et. al. (2014). A Primary Cause of Partisanship? Nomination Systems and Legislator Ideology. American Journal of Political Science, 58(2), 337-351.

President George Washington’s Farewell Address. Our Documents

Problem Solvers Caucus. 

“Rep. Jason Altmire.” GovTrack. 

Senate Bill 1249. Pennsylvania General Assembly 2011-2012

Elizabeth Svoboda (6/27/17). “Why Is It So Hard to Change People’s Minds?” UC Berkeley, Greater Good Magazine.

The New Democrat Coalition. 

Transcript

Jason Altmire:

My district was in Western Pennsylvania.1 The neighboring Congressman was a Republican, I was a Democrat. We were both centrist-oriented and had constituencies that were politically mixed, approximately half Republican and half Democrat.2 And we had a conversation with each other that we should do joint town hall meetings. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

You’re listening to The Purple Principle and today’s featured guest is Jason Altmire, former three-term U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania. 

Jason Altmire:

This was at the time that the Tea Party was just starting up, and some of the town hall meetings around the country had been very rough and very partisan.3 We were lamenting the fact that you couldn’t have a civil conversation about politics in this country. So we decided we would bring our constituents together and we would do joint town hall meetings.

Robert Pease (narrator):

This is Robert Pease, host of The Purple Principle. Please join us for a view of polarization from right up the middle today with Jason Altmire, rated the most centrist member of the U.S. House during his three term tenure4, and author of the book Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America. I’m here with staff reporter, Emily Crocetti. Emily, had you ever heard of a bipartisan town hall?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

I had not! I didn’t even know what that phrase meant when I first heard it, but I did some research and it seems that these town halls are held sometimes but usually over regional issues, like natural disasters or during COVID.

Robert Pease (narrator):

And what about the town halls Jason Altmire is describing?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Those were organized by Altmire and his Republican colleague next door, Tim Murphy, and not linked to any particular topic. And what about the others? Some others were sponsored events like the AARP on Medicare and social security. And speaking of that, I think that we should play something from that event.

Robert Pease (narrator):

Hold on a sec. Do we want to admit we’re spicing up audio with AARP meetings?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Okay, maybe not spicing it up exactly. I would say more like calming things down. I think that our listeners and especially young people really need to hear this. It’s a Democrat and a Republican, having a completely civil conversation in front of voters. Just listen to this. 

(Archival audio footage)

Welcome to the AARP town hall meeting. Tonight’s topic is the future of social security and Medicare. We have Congressman Jason Altmire in the middle, and Congressman Tim Murphy at my far left. We hope you brought a lot of questions with you. 

(Audience member, archival audio)

I’m a very proud member of AARP Pennsylvania. Do you think that the formula that determines the cost of living really reflects the true cost of living for seniors?

Jason Altmire (archival audio):

I absolutely do not. And I have co-sponsored legislation in each of the last two congresses to change the formula. Are you on that bill too? 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

And then listen to what one audience member said about the tone of this event, about the civility and bipartisanship. 

(Audience member, archival audio)

I think that we are lucky in Southwestern Pennsylvania to have two congressmen like these. There’s politicians – and I’m so afraid that there’s no more statesman. And I think you two are probably on the road to becoming some great statesmen for our country.

Robert Pease (narrator):

That is like an alternate universe! But it’s only Western Pennsylvania about 10 years ago. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Okay, so then what happened that made us so partisan? 

Robert Pease (narrator):

That’s a really good question, Emily, and, in fact, the driving question behind this podcast. So let’s see what former Congressman Altmire has to say about growing partisanship in the first half of our interview.

Robert Pease (interviewer):

Jason Altmire, welcome to The Purple Principle! Thank you so much for joining us. We’re honored to have you.

Jason Altmire:

Thank you for the invitation. These are certainly tough times for everybody, but I’m glad for the invitation to speak. 

Robert Pease (interviewer): 

Obviously COVID-19 is a major problem that is going to be with in a very serious way for some time. We’re seeing polarized responses right now in red and blue states, but at some point, do you think there’s going to be a national consensus and an effort to address this in a nonpartisan way? 

Jason Altmire:

This is a great concern of mine as this national crisis has unfolded. I’ve been very concerned about this idea that it’s gotta be somebody else’s fault. That’s unfortunately very different from what it used to be in this country, where crises would bring people together. It would be the one unifying factor that was out there where people would put politics aside. It is exactly the opposite now. It only exacerbates the problem of partisanship. It highlights the divide of the country, and you are seeing it with COVID-19. Unfortunately, you’re seeing people on both sides do and say things that are designed specifically to show that the other side is politically responsible for the crisis, either for the health consequences of COVID-19, or the economic consequences, or the inconvenience of having to be at home. 

Robert Pease (interviewer): 

So your book, Dead Center5 is holding up quite well, but if you could add or revise a section of that today, what topic would that be and why would you add that in?

Jason Altmire:

My book’s all about political polarization, as you know, and I offer a few things. I have social science research into how partisans think or react in different circumstances. For example, if you present them information that conclusively proves their point of view is wrong, will they accept it? No, they won’t. How do you deal with people that just don’t listen to fact? If you show them evidence, often they’ll dig in and get more entrenched in their opinion.6 And the unfortunate part is that the problem has only gotten worse. You almost never see the aggregate voting record of a member crossover into the territory of the other side. And it used to be 30 years ago, about a third or more of both Republicans and Democrats would frequently cross over and vote with the other party. And there was this very strong Centrist mix in both the House and the Senate.7 Today that’s gone. It’s not there at all.

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So earlier this year, after Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire presidential primary, there seemed to be a bottom-up movement from lower-level legislators who were concerned that having Bernie on the presidential ticket would jeopardize their chances in swing states like Pennsylvania. Could you analyze for us what happened in that pivotal period?

Jason Altmire:

That’s an instructive example. The reason that Senator Sanders had the support that he did is because of the dynamic that I described. Because people in primaries who show up overwhelmingly tilt towards the extreme of the party base. And at the moment it appeared that he was about to sew up the nomination, people took a step back and said their only concern is getting President Trump out of office because in the general election, it is the folks in the middle who are going to determine the outcome, the folks who are the voters willing to cross the aisle and vote for the other party if they liked that candidate more. And if somebody like Senator Sanders is going to be at the top of the ticket, that is going to turn off a huge number of folks who might otherwise have voted for a Democratic candidate, because they’re going to fear that that Democratic majority is going to carry out the policy agenda of Senator Sanders.

Robert Pease (interviewer):

It seems like there are two main factions among Democrats in Congress, Progressives and more moderates, but maybe it’s more complicated than that. Can you break down the current factions of Democrats in Congress or running for Congress and who has the upper hand?

Jason Altmire:

Well, who has the upper hand are the partisans on both sides, the Republicans and the Democrats. On the Democratic side, there are still a handful of members who come from districts like I described, where the swing vote in the middle is very important. And the groups within Congress who are representative of those types of members, there’s a group called the New Democrat coalition,8 which is a pro-business Democratic group. You also have the Blue Dog coalition,9 and the Blue Dogs are not about issues at all. They’re about what I’m talking about, about working with the other side and having the two parties negotiate and compromise and come to agreement on issues.

Robert Pease (interviewer):

During your time in Congress, the moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania changed parties from Republican to Democrat.10 I was wondering if at any point in your time in Congress whether there were overtures from Republicans for you to switch over to their party?

Jason Altmire:

I was somebody who was ranked by the National Journal to be the most centrist voting candidate or congressmen in the entire House.11 If you rank the members from one to 435, with one being the most liberal and 435 being the most conservative, National Journal ranked my voting record to be 218, which is exactly in the middle, in the dead center of the House. So at that point, my own party started to turn against me. They started to have concerns that I wasn’t able to support or willing to support the party agenda on every issue because my district just wasn’t supportive of those issues. And when the other side, in this case the Republicans, see that you’re facing pressure from your own party, they’re going to have a conversation with you. So yeah, I was approached, I had numerous people ask me to consider, but that wasn’t something I was interested in. I would not have done it.

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So at the same time that polarization has increased in the country, there’s also been an increase in the number of registered independents or unaffiliated voters. So how do we explain that seeming contradiction?

Jason Altmire:

It’s all about the way we handle elections in this country. One of the questions I get asked most often when I speak around the country about these issues is, why is there so much partisanship in Washington? We don’t see that in our neighborhood. Why is that what we’re getting in Congress? Well, the answer is because we’re electing partisans. We have a system that is designed to elect and protect people on the political extreme, on the fringe. And that is because of what happens in our primary process. So you are seeing great disgust in the country with the polarization that we see all around us. Some people have chosen to disengage from the political process and just not vote and not participate. That is clearly not the right answer, but the other problem is people have become disgusted and they’ve left the Democratic and the Republican party and they’ve become independents.12 And now they’ve disenfranchised themselves in many states: they can’t participate in primary elections. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

You’re listening to The Purple Principle and our featured guest today, former three-term U.S. Congressman Jason Altmire, author of Dead Center, and the most centrist member of the U.S. House during his tenure. Emily, that’s a huge point about collateral damage from independent voters locking themselves out of primaries. Do we have any numbers on that?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Oh yes. There are some big numbers mentioned out there, including 23 million from Jacqueline Salit13 who was a guest in our third episode and also the president of Independent Voting.org.

Robert Pease (narrator):

And what about our own estimate?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Well, that is tricky because first we have to start by looking at all 50 states and their primary systems, then at the growth of independent voters in those states with closed and semi-closed primaries. That’s where independents are excluded from voting unless they register with a party.

Robert Pease (narrator):

And sometimes you have to do that months in advance before candidates are even running, but roughly speaking…?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Roughly speaking, at least 9 million, and that’s according to our really conservative estimates which are based on states with closed primaries.

Robert Pease (narrator):

Still 9 million is a big number. If you break that number down for the most competitive primaries in swing states like Pennsylvania or Florida, it seems like that’s way beyond the margins that divide these races.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Exactly, a lot of these House primaries really do come down to just a few thousand votes with so many independents on the sidelines, which is Jason Altmire’s point that when independents check out from the primaries, the results will be more polarized.

Robert Pease (narrator):

And we’re going to hear more on that subject in the next part of the interview with former Congressman Jason Altmire, author of Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America. 

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So we’ve been talking about polarization, but it’s a little mysterious as space opens up in the center. Why aren’t there more successful runs from centrist independents?

Jason Altmire:

We have evolved as a country into a two-party system. It is not written into the Constitution, contrary to what people think. It is not something that was in place at the time we founded the country. The founding fathers did not envision the two-party system. They feared it. Washington famously spoke about it in his farewell address.14 John Adams wrote about the dangers of a two-party factional system.15 And over 230+ years, the inertia of that two party system that has made it nearly impossible for an independent candidate to win at the federal level. And if you have an R or a D by your name, that gives some indication to the voters of where you’re going to be on issues. If you’re an independent, you don’t necessarily have that. And more importantly, you don’t have the institutional support of the activists and the party committees who do the hard work of raising money and knocking on doors. Independents just don’t have that base of support. It’s very, very difficult.

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So, in Dead Center, you cover the influence of polarized media. And we certainly see media voices out there with a strong influence on Republican party policy and voting. How do you see it on the Democratic side?

Jason Altmire:

Well, Fox News is unique in that they have perfected the model. But MSNBC I think has caught up or nearly caught up, and CNN is close. If you hate President Trump, you have a friend on MSNBC or CNN. If you’re on the other side and you want to hear why President Trump is great for America, and the Democrats are unfairly targeting him, and on down the line, then Fox is going to be your network. And the problem is always going to be that you’re not exposed to other points of view. And that’s kind of like that joint town hall example that we started this conversation with. If you have a town hall meeting where you only hear from one side, you’re going to think that that’s the majority opinion in your district, and you’re going to go to Washington with that in mind. And when you hear somebody expressing something different than that, you’re going to think they’re crazy. That’s unfortunately what we have. And yes, it does apply to Democrats too.

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So other than I suppose, terminating one’s Facebook account and smashing a TV, what suggestions would you have for moderates or independents for media consumption?

Jason Altmire:

Awareness is the first of those, you know, being aware that people do generally have their own political spin. I get asked almost every time I speak that very question: “what are the news sources that I can count on to be unbiased?” And what you find is that people generally view a biased presentation to be one with which they disagree.16 I find that certainly opinion columns are what they’re called – they are people offering opinions. But in most cases, the journalists, the people who are following candidates and writing about campaigns, generally present issues in a two-sided way, in a generally nonpartisan way. 

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So we’re still in the primary season right now. What is your hope for the 2020 Democratic primaries? Do you see centrists who might have a chance of getting into the House? 

Jason Altmire:

Sure, in these swing districts. For me, it doesn’t have to be a Democrat or Republican. I just want pragmatic, thoughtful members; people who are willing to work with both sides and who are willing to consider other points of views and who are in districts where compromise is not considered a dirty word. 

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So, hopping over to the Republican side, if, for example – and it’s very hypothetical – that Democrats were to win the Senate, hold the House, and take the White House, would you expect that to have a moderating influence on the Republican party? 

Jason Altmire:

I don’t suspect that President Trump is going to be very highly rated throughout history. I don’t suspect that those who have supported his agenda are going to be thanked in the history books for that view. And I think the Republican party has done some damage to itself in the way that it has approached the Trump presidency. And that is in large part because of the primary circumstance that you and I talked about.

Robert Pease (interviewer):

So our last question, which we ask all our guests, is to show a bit of purple to our audiences which is primarily independents. Could you share with us either a Republican or Democratic major candidate that you either did vote for or could have voted for? 

Jason Altmire:

My first presidential election in which I voted was in 1988. I voted for President Bush that time, Vice President Bush. I thought he was exactly the type of candidate that you and I are talking about it. And historically he has only grown in stature because of the polarization that you see. I have definitely voted for both parties. I am not one of these folks who goes in and just goes right down the line, pushing the button for my own party. I look at somebody in Congress like Congressman Tom Reed from the Corning New York area, who’s leading a group called the Problem Solvers Caucus as a Republican.17 That’s a group of Republicans and Democrats in the House that come together and discuss issues and try to vote as a bloc, and that’s very much needed in the House.

Robert Pease (narrator):

That was our special guest, former Congressman Jason Altmire, one of the most centrist members of the U.S. House during his three terms, and author of the book Dead Center by Sunbury Press.

So Emily, you did some research on Altmire’s congressional record. What’d you come up with?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

He voted against the ACA (as in Obamacare) on the grounds that it didn’t provide enough cost control.18 But on the other hand, here’s a clip from the House floor where he’s criticizing George W. Bush’s veto of health insurance for low income children.

Jason Altmire (archival audio):

Mr. Speaker, while some in the minority party and in the presidential race are trying to recast themselves as agents of change, nothing could be further from the truth. In the past eight years, the number of Americans living without health insurance has increased by more than 7 million. Today, nearly one in nine children lack health insurance. We tried not once, but twice, to ensure that 10 million children had access to healthcare through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which serves families that are working hard and playing by the rules but can’t afford healthcare for their kids. And although we were able to pass the bill through Congress, President Bush vetoed it twice.

Robert Pease (narrator):

That’s interesting. Any major bills or sponsorships that actually passed?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Well, to start, there was sponsorship of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which allowed for our military members to serve as openly gay. And it looks like he lined up bipartisan support for that bill, with six Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors.19

Robert Pease (narrator):

Any highlights from House floor speeches?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Yes. We found this bipartisan appeal from the floor in 2013, as Congress was trying to break the budget stalemate and avoid financial defaults – a.k.a., financial suicide.

Jason Altmire (archival audio):

Last night, the Senate did what great deliberative bodies are supposed to do. They worked together, they compromised, they accommodated other points of view, and they got the job done. My colleagues, let’s join together today! Let’s show the American people that this Congress is not broken, that we are not so dysfunctional that we can’t at minimum work together, come to an agreement, compromise.

Robert Pease (narrator): 

So it does seem he was this centrist independent in his House positions, as well as back in his district, holding those town halls. Let’s hear Jason Altmire’s own description of how those town halls came off. 

Jason Altmire:

We invited all of our constituents jointly and we got a great mix. We had a wonderful discussion, none of  the theatrics that you see at these partisan town hall meetings, with the “gotcha” questions and people yelling and screaming. None of that happened; it was a completely civil discussion about the issues. And we had a great experience. 

Robert Pease (narrator): 

Seems like a great idea, which makes me wonder, why did the town halls stop?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

That’s where it gets interesting. Again, former Congressman Jason Altmire.

Jason Altmire:

And then I got a call from my leadership in the House saying, “what are you doing? Why are you having these town hall meetings?” Because the Congressman I was doing these with was Tim Murphy. And they said, “well, Tim is on our target list for the upcoming election. And by you working with him and showing him to be bipartisan, that’s going to contradict the message, because the message we’re going to be showing in the advertising is going to be all about how he’s extreme and he’s too conservative for the district.” 

Robert Pease (narrator): 

So Altmire’s own party leadership cracked down on him. 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Yes, but wait, there’s more. 

Jason Altmire:

So I talked to Tim about that when I saw him on the floor of the House. And he said, “it’s funny that you say that, because my leadership said exactly the same thing about you. They’re planning on tying you in with Nancy Pelosi and saying you’re too liberal for the district.” So both of our leadership tried to get us to stop holding these town hall meetings because they felt like we were helping the other side. It wasn’t about communicating with constituents and conveying issues and learning from the experience. It was that we might actually be politically helping somebody on the other side. And that was just unacceptable. That’s not the way it should be in Congress. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

That was our special guest, former three-term Democratic Congressman Jason Altmire on the bipartisan town halls held with former Republican Congressman Tim Murphy. These were shut down by the leadership of both parties. So Emily, what’s happened in those districts since that time?

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Like so many places, there was a bit of gerrymandering, followed by a few court cases, but long story short, Jason Altmire was defeated in the 2012 Democratic primary and Congressman Murphy resigned after a scandal in 2017. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

So no more town halls? 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

Not like theirs, and things have gotten even more polarized in the House since 2012 in terms of floor votes.

Robert Pease (narrator):

There’s more of that info on our website, purpleprinciple.com, and on the great repository of Congressional voting data, UCLA’s voteview.com database. 

We hope you enjoyed this episode and learned something about the perils of partisanship from former Congressman Jason Altmire. 

We have some questions here on The Purple Principle. How did we get so partisan? How might we get less partisan? Can independent-minded Americans help bridge the divide? Next time, join us for a slightly different take on partisanship from standup comedian Myq Kaplan. 

Myq Kaplan:

Interesting question. Well, I mean, first I think I need to disclaim this by saying I have a very high level of education. So I don’t think I know what I’m talking about, based on the research that I just learned and trust blindly. 

Robert Pease (narrator):

This is Robert Pease for The Purple Principal team; Emily Crocetti, staff reporter; Kevin Kline, audio engineer;  Janice Murphy, Marketing; Emily Holloway, research and fact checking; our awesome theme music and scoring is by Ryan Adair Rooney.

1994
2017

In 1986, 34 Democratic and 29 Republican Senators signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, creating a citizenship path for illegal immigrants while making it a Federal crime to employ illegal workers. The House also voted in favor, 238 to 173. The bill was signed into law on November 6, 1986. 

congress.gov

In 1972, 17 Republican Senators joined 35 Democratic Senators to override the Nixon Administration veto of the Clean Water Act, a landmark piece of environmental legislation. The House override vote was 247 to 23, including 96 Republicans and 151 Democrats in the majority.

govtrack.us

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