Bernie Sanders thinks climate change poses an existential threat to the planet, yet the Republican he likes the most in the Senate is Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, a proud climate-change denier. Inhofe brought a snowball to the Senate floor in February of 2015, his way of supposedly disproving that the previous year was the hottest on record.
He’s not a scientist, he likes to say, but if the planet is warming, how come it’s so cold outside that we’ve got snow?
It’s that kind of anti-intellectualism that enrages liberals, but opposites attract in love, so why not on Capitol Hill? Even so, for Beltway insiders, it was a jaw-dropping revelation to hear Sanders name Inhofe as his favorite Senate Republican in a recent CNN town hall. How could he?
Inhofe is one of the most conservative members of the Senate, and he’s not a warm and fuzzy guy either. He’s irascible and impatient and nobody is going to change his mind on anything. Of course, those are the same qualities that define Sanders on his side of the ideological purity scale.
“I can’t think of a time when one has brought the other one over,” says Donelle Harder, Inhofe’s spokesperson. “They either agree on an issue or they disagree.”
Harder told The Daily Beast she gets Google alerts all the time now that Sanders regularly invokes Inhofe’s name on the campaign trail. Sanders won the Oklahoma primary on Super Tuesday where it didn’t hurt to talk about how he works across the aisle with Inhofe, who won reelection in 2014 with 70 percent of the vote.
They first met when they served together in the House, and they are both on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, which Inhofe chairs. Their differences on climate change are “not a gap that they would ever bridge,” says Harder, but they are on the same side vote-wise, she says, when it comes to the nation’s infrastructure, funding and maintaining highways, bridges and ports.
She notes that in the small-town way that Washington works, Inhofe lives on Capitol Hill next door to two senior policy aides who have worked for Sanders for many years, and they often find themselves walking to work together. Things happen informally, and areas of difference are set aside the same way families avoid touchy subjects over Thanksgiving dinner.
Then there’s the dirty little secret that politicians relish the debate, however it turns out, as long as it features the sound of their voice. After one sharp exchange on global warming, Sanders credited Inhofe, saying “Good debate. You won and I lost.” There is a similar anecdote from their days in the House in the early ’90s when Sanders had proposed an amendment to boost taxes on the oil and gas industry. Inhofe led the opposition and when his side won the vote, Sanders congratulated him on the way he had marshaled his arguments.
“Jim is a climate-change denier. He is really, really conservative, but you know what, he is a decent guy and I like him, and he and I are friends,” Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
They’ve known each other and worked together for a quarter of a century, but Inhofe told Bloomberg they don’t talk football, not even the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game—and he doesn’t know whether Sanders has grandkids, or even a wife. Their conversation is typically centered on something legislative.
Now that may not pass the test of a real friendship in the real world, but on Capitol Hill, it’s a welcome crack, however small, in the harshly partisan gridlock. Sanders was at first hesitant to name names of Republicans he liked for fear it would prompt a 30-second negative ad that would destroy their reelection chances. Inhofe is safe as he represents a deeply red state where he is very popular.
There have always been strange bedfellows in Congress, friendships that seemingly defy ideology. In the past, they’ve been very important to getting things done. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy exemplified the practice, forging warm, personal relationships with prominent Republicans, especially Orrin Hatch, a conservative Mormon from Utah. They worked together on legislation related to health care, and when Kennedy died in 2010, Hatch delivered a eulogy at the JFK Library.
Melody Miller, who worked for Kennedy in his Senate office, recalled how the senator’s unique personal touches advanced his goals as a legislator. When then-Sen. John Warner, one of the most influential Republicans at the time, had a knee operation, Kennedy put a big red bow on a gold-tipped cane that belonged to his father, and that President Kennedy had used, and sent it to Warner as a loan.
Warner never used it—he kept it propped up against the fireplace in his office until he recovered and returned it. Those kinds of friendships may be a thing of the past, but if Sanders and Inhofe can manage to have a civil and respectful discourse despite their opposing views, and if they can agree on rebuilding at least some of the nation’s decaying infrastructure, that would be a good day’s work. And something partisans can cheer.