Isn't it time for those who actually believed that the president's "new tone" in Washington would reduce partisanship to admit they were wrong?
President Bush came to Washington promising a new tone of collegiality between the parties, and he did his part. Frankly, I've never bought into the "new tone" idea. Sure, people (including politicians) should treat one another with respect and courtesy because it's the right thing to do. But we shouldn't expect cordiality to lead to less partisanship, much less to better governance. And it hasn't led to either.
You would be hard-pressed to deny that Bush did sincerely try to set this new tone. From amiably backslapping Democratic senators and giving them nicknames, to eulogizing Ted Kennedy when promoting his education bill, to signing the rancid campaign-finance reform bill, Bush has made a genuine effort to get along.
And what has he received in return? Other than a few months' hiatus (due only to Sept. 11), he has been frustrated at almost every turn. Democrats made clear how they would respond to Bush's new tone from the beginning, during confirmation hearings for Attorney General John Ashcroft. Their treatment of most of Bush's judicial nominees has also been abominable. Some bipartisanship.
Now let's fast-forward to today's headlines, where a front-page story in The New York Times says it all. It is about the efforts of the Bush administration to avert a financial crisis by persuading the House to increase the legal limit on the national debt.
The thrust of the story, though, is not about the merits of raising the debt limit, because "both parties acknowledge" it is a step that "must be taken to avert a catastrophic default." Rather, it is about the "maneuvering" between the parties, which "are at loggerheads over a range of economic issues." It just cites the debt-limit issue as "the latest example of the White House economic agenda's becoming trapped in partisan gridlock."
It's true. Most of President Bush's domestic agenda has been either thwarted or diluted through compromise with the Democratic opposition. He even allowed his tax cut largely to be emasculated by deferring the main cuts to the out years. But did this earn him accolades among Democrats? No way! They've been beating him over the head with his tax cuts at every turn, disingenuously blaming the cuts for all of our economic problems, including the current debt "crisis."
Further, look at how Bush's efforts toward energy independence have been met with Democratic accusations that he is paying off his "Big Oil" buddies. His refusal to veto the constitutionally flawed campaign finance bill to avoid partisanship and his abandonment of school vouchers in the education bill to assure passage have earned him no good will with Democrats.
Even as Republicans try to outdo cradle-to-grave Democrats with their prescription drug bill, they are met not with praise, but ridicule. And just this week, Senate Democrats say they will subpoena administration documents they hope will prove that the administration relaxed air-quality rules improperly to satisfy the utility industry. The examples are endless. There is simply no appeasing Washington Democrats.
You Democrats could object and say, "Limbaugh, don't give us that. You Republicans were the ones on the warpath against Clinton. From day one you were out to destroy him." Well, I'm not going to bother to deny that (though I could make distinctions between Democrat and Republican partisanship) because it doesn't detract from my point that Bush's goal of improving civility between the parties had little prospect for working and, indeed, hasn't worked – no matter how you measure it.
Which brings us to a more important question: How should we measure success in governance? The proper yardstick is neither how well the opposing parties get along nor how many bills are passed. A party should judge itself by its effectiveness in advancing an agenda in furtherance of its principles.
President Bush and the Republicans should recognize that they gain nothing by compromising their principles and they lose much. As a result of all this "bipartisanship," President Bush's domestic agenda – other than homeland security – seems nearly incoherent, whether you're talking about steel tariffs, farm subsidies, education, campaign finance, prescription drugs or affirmative action.
Republicans should quit appealing to the phantoms of bipartisanship. Why not return to the right, where their supporters can get fully behind their efforts? One thing is certain: They are going to be blamed for whatever happens, so they might as well start making things happen that are consistent with the party platform.