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In the Political Arena, the Gladiators Are Now Engaged in Total War

Karl von Clausewitz, a 19th century German military theorist, famously said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. But in the last few years, it’s become increasingly difficult to draw any meaningful line between the two.

From the House impeachment of Bill Clinton on a virtual party-line vote, to the routine use of the filibuster by both parties to block nominations in the Senate, to the recall election now confronting California Gov. Gray Davis, the boundaries of civilized behavior in the political world are crumbling. If there was ever a Geneva Convention in politics -- a set of rules that governed even the fiercest combat -- it has lapsed. The only rule is that there are no longer any rules. In American politics, we now live in an age of total war.

Politics in America was born a bare-knuckled sport. Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel because of the nasty things Hamilton said about Burr in a gubernatorial campaign. When Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeded to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, congressional Republicans who believed the former Democrat was betraying Lincoln’s legacy tried to stop him with trumped-up impeachment charges. Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court when it overturned too much of his New Deal legislation. Lyndon B. Johnson initially rode to the U.S. Senate on stolen votes from South Texas.

So, American political life has always required a tolerance for mud and expediency. John J. Ingalls, a Republican senator scornful of Progressive-era reforms, had it right more than a century ago when he sneered: “The purification of politics is an iridescent dream. Government is force. Politics is a battle for supremacy. Parties are the armies.”

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But over the last generation, the level of combat in this endless battle has escalated to the point where the extreme has become the routine. What earlier generations considered a last recourse -- impeachment, recall, filibuster -- is now deployed casually. It is as if the nuclear weapons of politics have lost their stigma.

Consider all the red lines that have been crossed in just 20 years. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, congressional Democrats employed scandal as a political tool more overtly than ever before, railing against what they termed the “sleaze factor” in the administration.

Later in the decade, Newt Gingrich, initially a backbencher in a seemingly permanent Republican House minority, promoted another succession of scandals (with the help of the emerging conservative talk-radio transmission belt) that helped undermine the Democratic hold on the House. Along the way, the battle over Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, pivoting on charges of sexual harassment, set a new standard for acrimony and exposure of the most intimate details in a national figure’s life.

That standard for vitriol was quickly surpassed in the Clinton years -- Republicans took the sword that Democrats had used against Reagan and sharpened it to a new lethality. For eight years, GOP leaders used ethical allegation, congressional investigation and demands for the appointment of special prosecutors to weaken the president and frustrate his agenda. That process culminated in a House vote to impeach Clinton that was as blatantly partisan as the crusade against Andrew Johnson.

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If never so egregiously, Clinton pushed boundaries of his own. More than any president before him, he broke the barriers of decorum about the use of the White House to court donors and raise money; with the funds he collected, he launched an unprecedented series of early attack advertisements that smothered in the crib Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign against him.

The accumulated anger from the Clinton years exploded during the legal war between George W. Bush and Al Gore over the disputed Florida results in the 2000 presidential race -- a fight so ferocious that it obliterated, maybe forever, the quaint tradition that campaigns should end on election day.

The fall of each of these restraints has made it easier to topple the next one. For the last century, states have almost never redrawn their congressional district boundaries more than once in a decade except when ordered by a court. Now, Republicans have redrawn the lines in Colorado and tried to do so in Texas, simply because the 2002 election gave them enough votes in the state legislatures to push plans that would benefit them more. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Democrats for the first time are repeatedly using the filibuster to block judicial nominees whose views they consider unacceptable -- after an earlier Republican majority simply denied hearings to Clinton nominees it opposed.

The recall drive against Davis stands at the end of these crumbling prohibitions. Davis himself last year smashed an important taboo when he tried to pick his opponent by spending millions to undermine the candidacy of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan during the GOP primary. Now, Davis faces opponents equally willing to use a weapon that has almost never been unsheathed: Only one U.S. governor, in North Dakota in 1921, has ever been recalled.

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One reason Davis is in this fix is that California law makes it too easy to recall a governor: It requires fewer signatures than any of the other 17 states that allow the procedure. But much of Davis’ problem may be that after years of political war without rules, activists and even many voters don’t seem to feel as much hesitation as previous generations about dropping a bomb this big without irresistible cause, such as criminal conduct. In a world of impeachment, routine filibuster and re-redistricting, recall doesn’t look as radical as it should.

But no one really wins in a political climate where the end always justifies the means. Both parties suffer when their competition has no restraints. The public suffers the most because the intensity of modern political combat makes it tougher, often impossible, for the two major parties to work together to solve problems when the shooting stops. If it ever does stop.

The political warriors need to remember what the real generals learned a long time ago: The reason to accept rules for warfare isn’t to be nice to the other guy. It’s to protect your own side from the atrocities that are inevitable when there are no standards except survival.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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