Fight Club

Article excerpt

Byline: Evan Thomas and Stuart Taylor Jr.; With Daniel Stone in Washington

While the political parties duke it out over divisive social issues, the majority of Americans remain steadfastly in the middle.

Presidents have been trying, without success, to get Congress to pass sweeping national health-care reform since the administration of Harry Truman. So one might have expected some celebration, at least a moment of recognition for a difficult achievement, when the U.S. Senate voted on Christmas Eve to approve a bill that will extend health-care insurance to 30 million Americans. Instead, the public reaction was ho-hum. Most polls registered a divided or disinterested electorate, and some surveys have suggested considerable confusion over what was actually in the bill. A Washington Post-ABC poll the week before Christmas showed that less than half--44 percent--approved of President Obama's handling of health care, while even fewer--39 percent--thought the Republicans would do a better job. In effect, the American people seemed to be throwing up their hands and scorning the ability of the politicians to govern on such an important matter.

It's not hard to see why. Compromise is often painful, but the push to get a bill out of the Senate verged on the squalid. Senators joked bitterly about the "Cornhusker kickback," the generous concessions made to Sen. Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, to win his 60th and deciding vote. The atmosphere on the Senate floor was at times poisonous as the parties postured and squabbled. "This body prides itself on being the world's greatest deliberative body," said Sen. Arlen Specter, Democrat (formerly Republican) of Pennsylvania. "That designation has been destroyed with what has occurred here the past few days." The low point may have come when Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, declared, "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote." At the time, there was some question whether the ailing Sen. Robert Byrd, 92, would live long enough to give the Democrats their filibuster-proof majority. "This statement goes too far," responded Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat. "We are becoming more coarse and divided here."

More divided, that's for sure. Congress has always had its cruder elements--during the late 1950s and early 1960s, senators from both parties patronized prostitutes at the Quorum Club at the Carroll Arms Hotel, just across the street from the Capitol. The bar was run by Bobby Baker, the Democratic secretary of the Senate. But lawmakers in that era more often reached across the aisle to vote together as well as to play together. The congressional culture of the 1950s and early 1960s--"where Democrats and Republicans generally treated each other with civility during working hours and many drank, played poker, and golfed together after hours--is long gone," writes Morris Fiorina, a scholar of political science at Stanford University. In his new book, Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics, Fiorina argues that while the political class--the pols and their partisans in interest groups and in the media--has grown increasingly contentious over social issues like abortion and immigration, the vast majority of voters are more moderate. They are turned off by the rigid, angry battles between the politicians of the right and the left, and their cheering sections and hangers-on in Washington.

Fierce partisanship is hardly new, unexpected, or, for that matter, unwelcome on Capitol Hill, and at earlier times in our history elected representatives have, in the heat of debate, attacked each other with their fists. But as the rancorous and seemingly endless health-care debate dragged on, Congress appeared ever-more polarized. …