The rope in the partisan tug of war

So you think the partisanship in Washington is bad now? Just wait – it’s likely to get worse after the fall elections.

The capital is gripped by a tribal blood feud. Republicans and Democrats view the other party as not just wrong but evil, and this poisonous polarization was on full display during the last days of the healthcare debate. The two sides spoke no common language, employed no common frame of reference, and viewed the fight as Armageddon, in the words of House Republican leader John Boehner, the final battle between light and darkness.

In the end, a major overhaul of the American economy passed without a single Republican vote, and that’s bad news for the health of our civic life. A change this large should reflect a national consensus, not just the views of one party. But in today’s Washington, the outcome was probably inevitable.

Even if President Obama genuinely wanted a bipartisan bill, there are few pragmatic Republicans around to serve as negotiating partners. And the survivors face enormous pressure from the far right to extinguish even a flicker of cooperation.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of three Republicans to support the president’s stimulus package last year, quit the GOP in the face of a primary challenge from a hard-line conservative. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has co-sponsored legislation with Democrats on issues such as climate change and immigration, was censured by two Republican organizations back home for straying from “complete belief” in party principles.



On the Democratic side, when Sen. Max Baucus of Montana tried for months to negotiate with Republicans on the Finance Committee, he was consistently denounced as a heretic by left-wing ideologues.

As the fall election campaigns heat up, the voices demanding purity and division are getting louder. And the impact could be disastrous for those of us who share Sen. Graham’s definition of what a legislator should be, someone “who will reach across the aisle and solve problems.”

Look at Utah, where Sen. Robert F. Bennett has served three terms as a reliable Republican vote. But Bennett is also a professional legislator, a creature of the Senate (his father served four terms) who voted for the bank bailout and crafted an alternative healthcare bill with Democrat Ron Wyden.

As a result, Bennett now faces a primary challenge from the right fueled by outside conservative groups and radio-talk-show hosts. Asked by the New York Times to describe the campaign, Bennett replied, “This is the nastiest one I have experienced – either for me or my father.”

The story is similar in Arizona where John McCain has consistently cooperated with Democrats like the late Ted Kennedy. After McCain’s primary rival, J.D. Hayworth, denounced the senator’s pragmatic bent, McCain was forced to bring in Sarah Palin to validate his conservative credentials. Like Bennett, he may survive in the end, but even if the two senators are not replaced by hard-liners, they will return to Washington less likely to join future efforts at bipartisanship.

Then there’s Florida, where Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is running for the Senate and paying a heavy price for his support last year of President Obama’s stimulus bill. Crist appeared with the president, saying, “This is not about partisan politics. This is about rising above that, helping America and reigniting our economy.”

Now Crist’s reasonable words are being thrown in his face by conservative challenger Marco Rubio. At a recent fundraiser Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, a leading purist, promised, “If we can get Marco Rubio in Washington, he’ll help us reshape the Republican Party.” That’s true, but in the wrong direction.

Democrats are not immune from this impulse toward intolerant orthodoxy. In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a two-term moderate, is facing a primary assault from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the favorite of liberal interest groups and labor unions. “I’m the rope in the tug of war, folks,” said Lincoln in the New York Times. “It’s always a challenge to be in the middle, and that’s where I’ve always been in Washington. Making progress is a little mundane. It’s a little tedious. But it means sitting down at that conference table.”

She’s right. The process of legislative compromise IS mundane and tedious. Shouting slogans is a lot simpler and more emotionally satisfying. But life in Washington will get a lot worse without the pragmatists in both parties who are willing to sit at those conference tables and listen to what the other side has to say.

Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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