Staff Columnist

In Iowa: Good ol' days of bipartisanship may be over

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs makes an impromptu speech June 18, 2016, to delegates at the Iowa Democratic Party’s state convention at the Iowa Events Center-Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines. He went on to be defeated in that election, and his loss helped Republicans take control of the state Senate. That gain put the GOP in control of the state’s lawmaking agenda for the last two years. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs makes an impromptu speech June 18, 2016, to delegates at the Iowa Democratic Party’s state convention at the Iowa Events Center-Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines. He went on to be defeated in that election, and his loss helped Republicans take control of the state Senate. That gain put the GOP in control of the state’s lawmaking agenda for the last two years. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Is Iowa ready to have split government again?

Voters and politicians are fond of recalling the old days when Republicans and Democrats supposedly came together to collaborate on pressing issues. When control of government is split between the parties — like it has been for most of the recent Iowa history — it can force opposing sides to compromise.

Republicans have enjoyed unified control the past two years. In this November’s elections, Iowa Democrats hope to take control of the Iowa House and the governorship, but the Iowa Senate is expected to stay in Republican control.

If Democrats overtake one or two prongs of the trident, will Iowa’s pragmatic problem solvers reemerge in Des Moines? If the tone of this year’s campaigns is any indication, I’m not hopeful.

Take Medicaid as an example. At a forum for Johnson County legislative candidates last week, moderators asked for ideas on fixing the problems associated with Iowa’s Medicaid privatization. My own Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said, “The way we fix this is by electing Fred Hubbell as our next governor.”

So much for working with the other side.

Republicans, for their part, have often denied there are any major issues with the managed care system. If one side won’t acknowledge a very real problem and the other will refuse to collaborate with a chief executive of the opposing party, the odds of meaningful progress are slim.

Only one of the four Democrats at the forum I attended last week in Coralville showed any regard for bipartisanship. “I’m a person who has worked across party lines trying to get things done in the state of Iowa,” said Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford.

Why such different tones from politicians who agree on so many policy points? Consider their constituents. Even though Bolkcom’s District 43 and Kinney’s District 39 border each other, they are worlds apart politically.

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Bolkcom represents the bluest district in Iowa, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans in voter registration more than 3-to-1. Kinney has the most balanced district in Iowa, with almost exactly the same number of Republicans as Democrats, and about 2,000 more no-party voters.

Bolkcom’s is an extreme example, but there are plenty of safe partisan districts across Iowa. Kinney has one of only four Iowa Senate districts with less than 1 percentage point separating registered Republicans and Democrats.

Among 50 districts, 24 have partisan disparities greater than 10 percentage points. Iowa House districts are even more polarized — there are no districts as competitive as Kinney’s, and 58 of 100 with more than a 10 point difference between the major parties.

I don’t blame politicians in deep red or deep blue territory for their reluctance to compromise. They’re just giving the people what they want.

Americans are increasingly hostile toward opposing political views, according to a study published this year in Advances in Political Psychology by Stanford University researchers. They found the “out-party feeling-thermometer” — measuring how warm American partisans feel toward the other party — has declined with increasing pace over the past 30 years. The most frequent rating among survey respondents studied is now zero, meaning they have a totally unfavorable view of the other party.

“Ideologically polarized elites have intentionally engineered legislative gridlock; laws are enacted only when one party imposes its will on the other,” the Stanford scholars wrote.

Maybe Iowa’s political pendulum is swinging back to the middle. Hope for compromise, but prepare for gridlock.

l Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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