Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Politics Becomes a Rougher Game ; in a Country Split Down the Middle, Extreme Power Plays Are on the Rise from California to Capitol Hill

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Politics Becomes a Rougher Game ; in a Country Split Down the Middle, Extreme Power Plays Are on the Rise from California to Capitol Hill

Article excerpt

Call it the summer of unconventional warfare in politics.

From the recall election in California, to the absconding legislators in Texas, to a recent standoff in the US Congress that resulted in a police summons, a growing number of the nation's partisan battles are being waged with extreme - some would say unseemly - tactics.

Many of the schemes lie well outside the normal political process: California's recall, for example, is the first in the history of the state, and only the second in the history of the nation. Similarly, legislative procedures that were once held out as a last resort, such as filibusters, are now being employed on a regular basis.

The aggressive maneuvering demonstrates that, despite George W. Bush's promise to "change the tone" in politics, the nation's partisan warfare is continuing, and even intensifying, spreading from Washington to the states.

Some of it can be attributed to the difficult choices confronting officials as a result of ballooning budget deficits - a scenario that helped give rise to the recall in California and is producing tense standoffs in state legislatures across the country.

But it's also the result of an ongoing, and stubbornly even, political divide. Although Republicans currently control the White House and both chambers of Congress, their margins remain perilously slim, while the overall number of state legislators is almost perfectly split between the parties. With so little room to maneuver, analysts say it's not surprising parties are increasingly resorting to extreme tactics as a way to assert dominance or gain an additional edge.

"Whenever the country is split down the middle as much as it is, the partisan wars tend to heat up, precisely because the prize is at issue - the dominance of the government," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "There's this intensity that motivates aggressive actions on both sides to advance their cause."

Clinton and comity

The growing reliance on extreme tactics can be traced to the rancorous Clinton years, marked by government shutdowns and impeachment and capped by an election decided in the US Supreme Court.

Significantly, those years also saw a distinct partisan shift, in which Republicans took control of the US House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and the country's longstanding Democratic dominance in most areas of government aside from the presidency gave way to an essentially even divide.

The tight partisan competition has led to a decline in comity in Congress and elsewhere, say observers. When Democrats were in control, they "reached out to the minority frequently, because they could afford to - they knew they were going to win anyway," says James Thurber, a congressional expert at American University. …

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