Magazine article The American Prospect

Politics and Beanbag

Magazine article The American Prospect

Politics and Beanbag

Article excerpt

Politics, as Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley had it, ain't beanbag. But lately the Republicans have been playing political hardball while too many Democrats play beanbag.

Candidate George W. Bush managed to have it both ways, casting himself as a uniter but offering raw partisan rhetoric against the Democrats. During the debates, Bush kept faulting Al Gore for failure to accomplish in eight years many of the things Gore was now promising. But the vice president couldn't bring himself to utter the obvious rejoinder--that the culprit was Republican obstructionism--lest he sound partisan.

Throughout the Clinton years, the Republicans demonstrated the value of partisanship. In Clinton's first two years, they just blocked everything, making Clinton look ineffective. In 1994 they gained both houses of Congress. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract with America succeeded in nationalizing party politics and creating something very rare for the United States: a congressional caucus with near-parliamentary discipline.

Gingrich himself eventually became a victim of his own excesses. Right after he abruptly quit, Representative Bob Livingston became the shortest-lived Speaker of the House on record when it was disclosed that Livingston, too, had had an affair. An epic Saturday Night Live piece from the Lewinsky era has Gingrich and Livingston, despondent in a bar. Livingston keeps looking up from his drink and asking, "What the hell happened?" At the skit's close, inevitably, Clinton walks by, with a foxy babe on his arm.

But it wasn't an excess of partisanship that did in Gingrich and Livingston. It was personal hubris. Fierce partisanship served the Republicans well, and never more effectively than in the 2000 post-season. As the counting went on, it was Bush and Jim Baker who were willing to play rough with how much constitutional crisis the Republic could stand, and it was Gore who blinked. His feckless high-mindedness only reinforced the Republicans' claim that the Democrats had truly lost Florida and emboldened the Scalia Court to halt the count.

Now Bush has abandoned all pretense of governing from the center, and congressional Democrats are uncertain whether to muster wall-to-wall opposition. Imagine that Gore won Florida and the election, with a five-to-four Supreme Court ruling. Imagine that he compounded the sin by appointing lefties to his cabinet. Republicans would be boycotting the inauguration, vowing never to forget, and blocking nominees based precisely on their stated philosophies.

Why are Democrats less strategically resolute than Republicans? For one thing, they are less unified in substance. The New Democrat faction buys much of the Republican view of free markets. Democrats are more whipsawed by the system's dependence on big money. Even some liberals embrace the New Democrat label as a Good Housekeeping seal for fundraising purposes with big business and wealthy individual donors. …

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