Bipartisanship Etiquette 

Bipartisanship Etiquette 

Bipartisanship Etiquette 

Policy made plain.
Oct. 25 2001 5:32 PM

Bipartisanship Etiquette 

You must admit, the Democrats are being awfully good scouts about this bipartisanship business. Especially when you consider the circumstances. They have not just rallied uncritically around a president of the opposite party. They have rallied around a president who got fewer votes than their own candidate and one who many of them believe actually stole the election. That whole set of issues is dead now. Sept. 11 certified George W. Bush as president in a way that a mendacious Supreme Court decision never could. It's not because of anything in particular that he's done, but just because this awful burden has fallen on him, and because our lives suddenly depend on his leadership.

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Politically, this is a no-win situation for the Democrats. If terrorism subsides and the war is perceived as won, Bush will be a hero. If terrorism continues and escalates, we are in trouble way beyond political considerations. The call to "put partisanship aside" is inherently asymmetrical: Criticism of the president is put aside but praise is not. Bush has handled this crisis pretty well, so far, but the notion that a callow Prince Hal has blossomed into noble King Henry before our eyes is sentimental claptrap. The improvement in Bush's image is a gift of the circumstances. Even Bush's critics (including me) strain to say nice things about our president at this moment and restrain our nastier impulses.

This is all unfair, and yet all perfectly appropriate. Bad luck for the Democratic party is one of the less important consequences of Sept. 11. Still, this unfairness makes the Democratic leadership's behavior since 9/11 look especially handsome. And it's hard to resist doubting whether Trent Lott and Dick Armey (and whatsisname, the speaker of the House) would be behaving as well as Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt have done if the shoe was on the other foot.

It's also hard to resist feeling that the Democrats' bipartisanship has not been entirely reciprocated. The New York Times made it front-page news the other day when Bush went up to the Capitol and gave Daschle and Gephardt each a great big hug. That's sweet, but insufficient. The Democrats' support has been unconditional, as it should be, and nothing requires Bush to do more for bipartisanship than his own desire to be a statesman and a mensch (good guy). But as the inevitable beneficiary of bipartisanship, he ought to be making a few more handsome gestures of his own to match those of the loyal opposition. Here are some suggestions:

1. Appoint Democrats to more high-profile positions. Bipartisanship does not mean coalition government, but it ought to mean more than demoting Norm Mineta, who was serving as secretary of commerce at the end of the Clinton administration, to the lesser post of secretary of transportation and token Democrat in the Bush Cabinet. Bush missed a terrific opportunity for bipartisanship when he didn't choose a Democrat (Al Gore?) to head the new Homeland Security apparatus.

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2. Stop picking on your predecessor. Given the Democrats' strenuous restraint about criticizing Bush, the chorus of Republican and conservative voices attempting to blame Sept. 11 on Bill Clinton is unseemly and unfair. None of this may be coming from the White House, but Bush could turn it off with a few public words or private phone calls. The hindsight game is cheap in any event. The tens of billions Bush is now demanding, and getting, for fighting and protecting against various forms of terrorism are an implicit criticism of his own priorities as of Sept. 10. Let's not get into it, OK?

3. Apologize. During the election campaign, Bush echoed the Republican conventional wisdom that there is a fundamental difference between pursuing narrow military objectives and chasing an overambitious folly called "nation-building." This distinction originated as a way to explain why George Bush the elder was right to send American troops into Somalia but Bill Clinton was to blame when some of them were killed in an ambush. The "mission had changed," it was said. The distinction was always partisan nonsense, and now Bush the younger is calling for something indistinguishable from nation-building in Afghanistan.

If ever there was a military intervention whose goals did not involve nation-building, Afghanistan would be it. Our goal in Somalia was to stop a famine that was directly caused by the political situation. In Afghanistan our goal is to purge terrorist forces that are merely hosted, not even controlled, by the government. We couldn't care less, truth to tell, about conditions in Afghanistan itself. But even in this extreme case Bush has decided—correctly—that strategic, diplomatic, and (yes) even humanitarian considerations make nation-building an essential component.

So, now that the president is pursuing a policy he criticized, admitting error and apologizing would be a very bipartisan thing to do.

4. Compromise. True bipartisanship has to mean more than, "Let's you and I agree to do what I want." Specifically, don't try to present yourself as the non-partisan broker between Democrats to your left and extreme Republicans to your right. Claiming the center is good partisan politics, but in the bipartisan game it's cheating. The Times was trying to be mischievous in noting that Bush failed to hug Senate Republican leader Lott during his make-out session with Daschle and Gephardt, but some stagey distance from Hill Republicans just enhances Bush's ability to present his own positions as the ones that are statesmanlike and above politics.

A simple test: It's not bipartisan if it doesn't hurt a bit. The Democrats are doing things in the spirit of bipartisanship that must hurt quite a bit. And they're being stoic about it. Can Bush do less?