In the lazy, hazy, crazy days of Clinton, the media fought an enemy it no longer has. In an interview almost stroking the hair of Vice President Al Gore, Bryant Gumbel identified them as "the architects of gridlock." They were, of course, the Republicans. Even as Democrats ruled both houses of Congress and the White House in 1993 and 1994, a united Republican minority was holding "progress" at bay, and the media wanted them to be unpopular for it. When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, the media wanted them destroyed.
Today, as President Bush leads a war against terror abroad, he has sought to make peace, not war, with the Democrats, especially in the Senate. He's kissing Ted Kennedy's ring by naming the Justice Department after his brother Robert. He likes to hug Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in public to signal his warm feelings. Such love for his fellow man is not necessarily meant to ask for something in return, but if it were, what has it accomplished? What has Daschle given the president in return? Moral support? Maybe. Policy? Almost nothing.
While you might count the Democrats' patriotic postponement of the usual cavalcade of charges that the Republicans represent the party that seeks to starve the poor when it's not giving them water poisoned with arsenic, the Senate majority has played nothing but hardball ever since Sen. Jim Jeffords went caucus-shopping. But no reporter has even whispered under his breath that Tom Daschle might be an "architect of gridlock."
Some reporters are actually demanding that Daschle repeal this year's legislative achievements. Soon after the Jeffords betrayal smoothed final approval of the Bush tax cut, CBS's Gloria Borger was pushing Daschle on "Face the Nation" about his plans to repeal it. She wasn't asking how he could muck up the system. She was asking "Why not right now?"
Since then, with the exception of slow-moving and always-increasing spending bills, Daschle's primary play has been the quiet stall. Look at the absolutely glacial pace of judicial nominations. Many of Bush's nominees were selected in the spring, and will be spending the holidays still on ice, courtesy of Daschle and his wildly unpopular Judiciary Committee chairman, Patrick Leahy. These two have also spent most of this year sitting on the nomination of eminently qualified "drug czar" nominee John Walters, who twiddled his fingers through months of delay that awarded the drug legalizers time to go digging for dirt to ruin him.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, in a time of both war and recession, Daschle has resolutely smiled through breakfast meetings with Bush as he strangles the nation's business. There is no tax-cut package to stimulate the war-damaged economy. Thanks, Tom. There is no push for greater energy independence. Thanks, Tom. But the Democrats can complain about trying terrorist suspects in military tribunals, while at the same time they're denying the federal courts of any new judges. That's rich, Tom.
So where are the media, those haters of obstructionism? You can find them there in Daschle's pocket.
Apparently, not only is Daschle not an obstructionist, he's not a partisan, either. One week before the terrorist attacks, ABC "Nightline" reporter Chris Bury was touting how South Dakotans organized a barbecue for their home-state hero with nearly 100 guests: "Nearly every one of them is a registered Republican ... Senator Daschle's skill at reaching beyond partisan lines could clearly come in handy should his aspirations run to a higher office." Either Bury's laying it on thick, or a bunch of South Dakota Republicans checked the wrong box at registration time.
It's all out of the same media playbook used for Daschle's mentor, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who crippled the first Bush presidency with partisan gridlock. Then, as now, the media portrait was like a photographic negative. In one 1989 news report, the New York Times swooned over Mitchell: "His logic is crisp, unassailable, his manner far removed from the thrust and parry of contemporary politics. He is the soul of judiciousness, high-minded in his concern for governance. But some in his party would like for a bit more of the street fighter." Mitchell rode this kind of kiss-me coverage all the way to Bush the Elder's defeat.
President Bush clearly wants to keep things smoothed over in Washington so he can fight the terrorist menace abroad. His team thinks success is all about talk of "making progress" with the good people of both parties. But at some point, he's going to have to fight in public for what he believes. Unlike President Clinton, he can't count on a sympathetic media to shame his opposition or make them unpopular for blocking his agenda. At some point, he's going to have to choose between making real progress and smiling without victories through breakfast photo opportunities.