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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 107-115

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The Opportunity Is Real

Alton Frye

On November 7, 2000, the U.S. political system delivered the closest thing it can offer to a mandate for coalition government. Not only the presidential election but balloting for congressional and state offices mirrored a nation closely divided in its choice of leadership. Yet, the fact that Americans are closely divided need not mean that they are deeply divided. Whether the coming interval in U.S. political life is doomed to the fractious futility of a "permanent campaign" or becomes a period of productive accommodation rests with those who now assume responsibility in the White House and the Capitol. The prognosis for bipartisanship must take into account factors and tendencies that are clearly contradictory.

There is no deficit of obstacles and warning signs. The era begins with psychological realities in tension with political realities. The suspicion and harsh attitudes infecting both executive and legislative behavior during the Clinton years have grown unusually severe. Quite apart from the animosity veering toward contempt that many members of Congress felt toward then-President Bill Clinton, mutual ill will among key congressional partisans has diminished their capacity to forge the compromises on which democracy must rely to lubricate its frictional processes.

The Dynamics of the Institutions

The acid attitudes evident in the late 1990s have their origin much earlier, in the four decades of Democratic majorities in the House when the Republican minority came to feel rudely oppressed. Intentionally or not, the Republican [End Page 107] majority that came to power in the House in 1994 gave a good impression that it was payback time. House Democrats in turn felt unfairly treated. Comity also deteriorated in the Senate, with the atmosphere of both chambers soured by the Clinton impeachment and other episodes of inter-branch controversy. Intemperate rhetoric inflamed the resentments on both sides of the aisle, especially in the House, and those resentments fueled the exceptionally partisan campaign of 2000. As often as not, political maneuvers and confrontations said less about differences of high principle or policy than about the fact that the individuals involved had a decided dislike for one another.

It was never likely that the 2000 election would remove the scar tissue that has developed in the body politic during these years. At most, one could hope that a new president and a Congress given a fresh start could begin a healing process that, over time, could replace the prevailing rancor with a reasonable degree of respect. To a certain extent, that is the tone with which the new Bush administration begins, both in the president's repeated personal affirmations and in the dominant themes of most leaders in Congress. Lurking near the surface of optimistic post-election rhetoric, however, is a high-voltage potential to revert to form, with each party eyeing the 2002 midterm elections as a chance to bolster its own power. Will bipartisanship prevail, or will the parties "buy partisanship" as the ticket to victory in the next contest?

The answer to that question obviously hinges on the character and sensitivity of the president and those with whom he must forge coalitions in Congress. Beyond those first-order factors, however, basic political alignments favor a period of cross-party accommodation and productive governance. Benign incentives are taking hold; few politicians can see profit in rigid ideological postures that invite blame for frustrating the electorate's demand for moderate action on the nation's business. It will not be easy for partisan warriors to curb the habitual invective of recent years, but their own colleagues are demanding it. In the telling phrase of Representative Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), "The bomb throwers need to be caged."

One solid basis for expecting fruitful bipartisan cooperation is the enhanced role for moderates within the Congress. Not only did centrist candidates fare well in the races for House and Senate, but their positions within the committee structures have improved. The House Republicans' rule on term limits for chairmanships has set off an extraordinary round of musical chairs, with the leadership of...


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