- - Friday, May 11, 2012

By Ira Shapiro
PublicAffairs, $34.99 512 pages

Political buffs, especially older ones, tend to wax nostalgic about the so-called “good old days” when tensions were lower and cooperation and comity were higher.

Much of that analysis these days comes from Democrats, who long for the time when Congress passed a great deal of liberal legislation with the help of moderate Republicans. They are frustrated that Republicans have become more stubborn and are less willing to make compromises for the “common good.”

In “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis,” Ira Shapiro, a Washington trade lawyer and former Senate aide, has made that argument in book-length form. He gives a detailed account of many of the legislative battles of the late 1970s, and clearly longs for a political climate more conducive to history repeating itself.

Mr. Shapiro argues that when the GOP took control of the Senate in 1980, it “shattered the Great Senate,” and since then that chamber has “basically become a third wheel in our political system.” Though the author speaks about the virtues of bipartisanship (and there are many), he is really longing for the days when Democrats had such a strong majority in the Senate that Republicans had to compromise if they wanted to have any input on the legislative process.

Whether the issue was the Panama Canal treaty, energy policy or judicial fights, the bipartisanship that occurred was driven by the Democrats’ agenda. Mr. Shapiro’s chapter-length case studies (peppered with engaging profiles of key senators) focused on how policy preferences favored by Democrats usually prevailed, although members of the majority typically threw Republicans a few legislative bones.

Mr. Shapiro describes these legislative battles in great (occasionally mind-numbing) detail. While his points are well taken, he sometimes gets so deep into the legislative weeds that it could limit the book’s appeal to a broader audience.

The Democrats succeeded in part because they had a bigger tent at the time, including conservative Southerners. Many of those interest groups and voting blocs now form part of the base of the Republican Party. Because of demographic trends and ideological shifts, the GOP has made what is likely to be an irretrievable lurch to the right. As a result, while you have Republicans who will forge compromise, they are starting from a different ideological perspective than the many Republicans who populated the Senate during the late 1970s, such as Howard Baker, John Heinz and Jacob Javits.

Democratic lawmakers have also become more strident. When the tables were turned during the administration of President George W. Bush, there weren’t many instances in which Democrats worked across party lines to help the occupant of the Oval Office. Also, the GOP’s growing strength has meant that even when Democrats have controlled Congress, it hasn’t been by lopsided margins.

Mr. Shapiro (who was my boss during a summer internship on Capitol Hill during the early 1980s, though we have had only sporadic contact since then) blames the rise of the New Right for the increased polarization in the Senate. He argues that the conservative movement (which helped engineer the defeat of some of his liberal heroes, including Sens. Birch Bayh, George McGovern and Gaylord Nelson) has made political disputes more personal and that it further blurred the distinction between campaigning and governing.

His analysis is only half right. The Democrats have hardly been bystanders in the coarsening of American politics. A vivid example of that was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s floor speech predicting that President Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork would return the nation to an era of segregated lunch counters.

Despite Mr. Shapiro’s tendency to place a disproportionate share of the blame on the GOP for the nation’s current political woes, his book is eminently worthwhile. In an engaging fashion, he takes us back to an important period of American history during which senators had greater respect for one another. Those interested in improving the nation’s governing climate could learn valuable lessons by reading “The Last Great Senate.”

• Claude R. Marx regularly reviews books for the Boston Globe and the Weekly Standard.

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