Our political pipe dream

Times Staff Writer

Shortly after the hot air was let out of the Kerry-McCain trial balloon by the contrarian senator from Arizona himself, further proof emerged that the notion of bipartisanship in this festering political climate is as quaint as your mama’s threat to wash your mouth out with soap for cussing:

Mere hours after South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat, took to the Senate floor last month to plead with his colleagues for a renewed commitment to inter-party civility, news broke that Vice President Dick Cheney had dropped the F-bomb on a senior Democratic senator as the Senate had gathered two days earlier for its annual group photo.

“I think he was just having a bad day,” the insulted solon, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, told CNN.


Yes, well, it’s a bad day in general for those who yearn, as one political observer put it, for that somewhere-over-the-rainbow sense of mutual respect and cooperation between the parties and their adherents.

Several recent events have kindled, in the breasts of at least some Americans, a flicker of yearning for bipartisanship.

First, of course, was the news that Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was flirting with Republican Sen. John McCain about the No. 2 place on the ticket. The two, war veterans whose friendship and mutual respect are based on their formative experiences in Vietnam, were seen by some as a kind of dream team, offering the possibility of a “national unity ticket” in a deeply divided time.

Positive feedback came from the strangest places: “I was ready to say, ‘Why not?’ ” said David Corn, Washington editor of the Nation and one of the few liberal contributors on Fox News Network. “John Kerry was looking for what might have been the decisive advantage. He was sending a signal that he wanted to break the cycle of political violence.”

After days of denials, McCain blew the unity ticket out of the water. Any unity he’d be displaying in this campaign would be with the man who beat him to a pulp in 2000. And then McCain proved he wasn’t kidding when he publicly embraced President Bush on a campaign swing through Washington and Nevada.

Also, as the doomed Kerry-McCain courtship was winding to its fruitless conclusion, former President Reagan died, and again, bipartisanship yearning was in the air. A full week of tributes, reminiscences and, eventually, bickering about his historical significance included many nostalgic accounts of a guy who would check his partisan feelings at the door at the end of the day to toss back a brew with his good friend from across the aisle, House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill.

And finally, in a scene that struck many in a jarred nation as almost surreal in its bipartisan spirit, you had the specter of the Republican-in-chief welcoming his Democratic predecessor and Bush family nemesis, Bill Clinton, back to the White House for the unveiling of Clinton’s official presidential portrait. “Thanks for your service to the country, and welcome back to the White House,” the 43rd president told the 42nd through apparently unclenched teeth. “We’re really glad you’re here.”

“Well, I kind of liked it,” said Noemie Emery, a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard. This from someone who wrote last year in an essay: “I love George W. Bush. I worship the man. I wake up every morning glad he is president.”

Inside the Beltway, tempers may be frayed and small gestures may provoke profane responses, but across the country, believe it or not, the majority of Americans are not caught up in partisan bickering.

“People yearn in an almost sentimental way for a country they can all feel citizens of together,” said Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “There is at least general agreement on the most divisive issues -- abortion, gay rights, gun control -- that are used by the highly partisan fringe as levers to shore up their political power. If you eliminate the 15% of people on the fringe at either end, you have that 70% in the middle -- and I know; I am one of them.”

As is so often the case, California is on the leading edge of bipartisan wish fulfillment. The bicep-tively blessed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican who drives the fringe on both sides crazy, can begin to claim the mantle that Bush had once touted as his own: “a uniter, not a divider.”

“The magic is not that he’s a movie star but that he’s been able to find a way to let people find a common currency for the common good so far,” Jones said. The governor is able to mold the unruly Democrat-dominated California Legislature to his will quite simply: “He says, ‘If you don’t stop acting like children,’ ” Jones said, “ ‘I’m going to go over your heads.’ ”

Unlike Schwarzenegger, who has actually bridged the partisan divide in Sacramento, most politicians have responded to the public’s desire for cross-party comity by, well, pandering to it. “I think what’s going on is like an old spiritual,” said Eric Uslaner, a University of Maryland political scientist. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

So there was the soft-spoken Daschle, urging senators who have been gridlocked on just about everything to “end the cycle of partisan retaliation.” He didn’t vow to stop filibustering the president’s judicial nominees, but he did suggest that getting senators’ families together for “a barbecue or a potluck supper” could work wonders.

Perhaps it’s a measure of how cynical we are that few put faith in a gesture such as Daschle’s. “There’s a certain phoniness on all sides when you call for bipartisanship,” Corn said. “It usually means you want the other side to agree with you.”

It’s also a way of making the other guy look bad: “By attempting to be bipartisan,” Uslaner said, “you make the other side look narrow and intolerant.”

Which is perhaps why many spurn the very notion on its face. This antipathy is conveyed in what are sure to become the immortal words of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas -- and quoted again recently by antitax activist Grover Norquist -- that “bipartisanship is just another name for date rape.” (Armey, a Republican, coined the aphorism when Democrats reigned, which might account for his sour view.)

While Armey’s may be a singularly sexist way of describing the phenomenon, the fact is, said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at UC San Diego, that partisan divisions are good and healthy and often the result of deep but sincere differences. “Most ordinary people think politicians gin up conflict for conflict’s sake, and if reasonable people talked it out, they would agree on the right thing. That is totally false. The reason you have politics is because people disagree -- and they disagree on important things.”

Generally, a more cooperative spirit reigns when Congress is lopsided in favor of one party or the president has won by a huge margin. “In the Reagan era,” Emery said, “you couldn’t argue with the enormous landslides that he had or the enormous majority that the Democrats had in the House.”

It’s when margins are razor thin, as they are now -- the squeaker 2000 presidential election and the current splits in the Senate (51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, one independent) and the House (228 Republicans, 206 Democrats, one independent) -- that bipartisanship becomes roadkill on the road to partisan victories large and small.

“Both parties think every issue could be the key to increasing their very narrow lead or paring down or eradicating a narrow lead,” Emery said. “If they get hysterical on every issue and make people feel that the other side are criminals, it might help them because you just don’t know what can give you this tiny edge that you need.”

Many people fondly recall relationships of Congresses past to exemplify how poisonous today’s relationships have become. For instance, in the late 1940s, Uslaner said, two men who alternated the House speakership depending on which party was in power -- Rep. Joseph Martin, a moderate Republican from Massachusetts, and Rep. Sam Rayburn, the legendary Texas Democrat -- were dear friends. Rayburn was a bachelor, Uslaner said, and the Martins would have him to their home for dinner three nights a week because they didn’t like the idea of him eating alone.

Later on, O’Neill and his GOP counterpart, House Minority Leader Bob Michel, played golf once a week. “Now,” Uslaner said, “if you give a particular leader a golf club in the presence of someone from the other party, that could be dangerous.”

Partisan sniping was the last thing on anyone’s mind in the grim days after 9/11, when comity and cooperation were abundant, even excessive in some minds. “ ‘Mindless bipartisanship’ is not an inaccurate description of what happened after Sept. 11,” said Hurst Hannum, an international law expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “By questioning anything about the response to the attacks, you were perceived as unpatriotic.” Congress overwhelmingly passed measures that are now the subject of intense controversy: the USA Patriot Act and the congressional resolution authorizing the president to use military force to combat terrorism. In October 2002, the resolution authorizing the war against Iraq was not nearly as popular; still it was a clear bipartisan victory for Bush.

The unified mood of Congress was reflected in the population as well. And yet, as the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press discovered in a survey a little over a year later, “that spirit has dissolved amid rising political polarization and anger. In fact

Pew editor Carroll Doherty said that, in retrospect, he sort of wished the center hadn’t used the charged word “polarization” to describe the electorate. “We didn’t mean to convey that people are taking up arms or that it looks like 1968 with campuses in turmoil and protests against an unpopular war.... Compared with what goes in Washington, there is peace across the land.”

Still, he added, “the partisan split is very profound and, as a result, if you had to define the attitude of partisans in an election year, it’s ‘let’s win’ rather than ‘let’s cooperate.’ ”

Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.