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In Washington, partisan fireworks often obscure deal-making

WASHINGTON—Confrontation is the red meat of politics. Compromise is the salve of governance. Both are present in the nation's capital, often occupying the same room in Congress, but they seldom get the same attention in the media.

When White House Republican guru Karl Rove accused liberals last week of a weak-kneed response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois apologized for comparing U.S. treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to Nazi Germany's torture, they became the latest episodes in an endless loop of sneering partisan rhetoric and indignant demands for retractions.

But while they got the headlines and dominated talk radio, Republicans and Democrats in Congress were working together, largely unnoticed, on several significant fronts.

"Welcome to Washington," Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Thursday evening of this apparent dichotomy, echoing each other as they ambled down the sweeping steps on the east side of the Capitol.

Alexander and Graham had just voted with Democrats on an amendment to a major Senate energy bill. They couldn't help but marvel at the contrast between the civil discourse and bipartisan votes that have marked the Senate debate on the energy bill and the partisan uproar over Rove, Durbin and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean's remarks, such as when Dean recently said the Republican Party is essentially limited to white Christians.

"It's all about the base," Graham said, referring to the hard-core party faithful who fuel the parties with their activism, money and votes.

Indeed, when Dean accused Republicans of lacking diversity and kowtowing to the religious right, the Democratic liberal base cheered while Republican conservatives accused him of anti-Christian bias. When Rove said the liberal response to Sept. 11 was to "offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," conservatives roared their approval and liberals demanded an apology.

Political professionals argue that a good fight is a great motivator for the true believers. And an energized electorate is better than an apathetic one.

But the rhetorical fireworks can obscure the less dramatic governing going on in a parallel political universe where Republicans and Democrats often work hand in hand to take care of the nation's business.

This week, Senate Democrats and Republicans are poised to pass an energy bill by a lopsided bipartisan margin after spending two weeks in civil debate.

In the House of Representatives, a broad bipartisan coalition restored $100 million in financing Thursday to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, money that had been cut earlier in a Republican-controlled committee.

This month, the Senate has approved a handful of controversial judicial nominees under a compromise reached by seven Republicans and seven Democrats who struck a deal to avoid letting partisan brinkmanship overwhelm the Senate.

And on Friday, the Senate approved a bill more clearly defining the public's right to see government documents that was co-sponsored by liberal Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont and conservative Republican John Cornyn of Texas.

The nuances of political reality are often lost amid the news media's decisions about what to highlight.

"News is about what went wrong," Alexander said. "You don't make the news by driving safely to work, and you don't make the news by working together to pass an important bill."

When an embattled Dean went to the Capitol recently to meet with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, 60 reporters and camera crews crowded into a small office, shoving and shouting in an unruly display seldom seen when the subject is legislation.

"The Rove story, the Dean story, the Durbin story are easy," said Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "They write themselves. ... They are the political form of celebrity stories."

But the media don't deserve all the blame. Politics today is more partisan, more personal and more heated than it was even 20 years ago. As a result, the House, where most members come from districts designed to be safely Republican or Democratic, is more ideologically extreme than the population at large.

Some issues are also disputed more intensely than many were in the past. The case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who died March 31 after a judge ordered her feeding tube removed, cleaved the country along cultural and religious lines. And nothing since Vietnam has generated as much harsh rhetoric as the war in Iraq.

"The issue of the war has become very, very divisive now, much more than it has ever been," said former Sen. John Breaux, D-La. "It's dividing families; it's dividing generations."

Complicating matters further, the political parties are no longer the only channels for political discourse. Tighter campaign-finance laws prompted an explosion in well-financed liberal and conservative groups unaffiliated with the parties, such as the liberal MoveOn.org and the conservative Free Congress Foundation. Equipped with the latest in Internet know-how, they've managed to frame liberal and conservative discourse in a snarling, confrontational tone.

When a Dean, a Durbin or a Rove touch a nerve, these ideological groups respond with a fierce roar—and the parties dare not linger far behind.

"They have to do it if they want to raise their money," Hess said. "That's relatively new as well. Washington has turned out to be a big rock-candy mountain for all these political enthusiasts."

To be sure, the issues that most divide the country—the war in Iraq and cultural hot buttons such as abortion—don't lend themselves to easy compromise. They're the fatwood of politics, easily ignitable. And where lines are drawn on grounds of religious-based moral values—such as abortion, stem-cell research or Schiavo—advocates often feel compromise is immoral.

Even so, lawmakers this year repeatedly have found common ground on less volatile but no less difficult subjects, such as restricting class-action lawsuits, changing bankruptcy law and modernizing the nation's energy policies.

Even the Senate's bipartisan compromise on judicial nominations was born out of a partisan logjam fueled by liberal and conservative interest groups demanding all-out confrontation.

"Their basic message was, `Don't give in, fight to the end,'" said Breaux, a Democrat known for his willingness to broker deals with Republicans.

"That's something that is new, is loud and has a lot of money," Breaux said. "I haven't seen one group arguing that compromise should be reached on any one issue."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Howard Dean, Karl Rove, Dick Durbin

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