Bush's Phony 'Bipartisanship' | The Nation


Bush's Phony 'Bipartisanship'

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When it finally became clear that George W. Bush would be the 43rd President of the United States, a worried US Representative Bernie Sanders asked the Congressional Research Service for a list of all the legislation that outgoing President Bill Clinton had vetoed in his second term. Sanders theorized that the list, which ran from a sweeping cut in estate taxes to legislation banning late-term abortions, would form the basis of the new President's legislative agenda in 2001.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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"It's logical; these are bills that passed the last Congress with solid majorities of Republicans and conservative Democrats, and that were only stopped with a veto," says Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats but does not cloak his frustration with the party's failure to champion a progressive agenda. "If the Republicans are smart, they'll start moving a lot of these bills through quickly, get Bush to sign them and spin the story that the new President has broken the gridlock."

Even as many Bush critics continue to focus on reviewing county-by-county returns from Florida, Sanders is moving fast in hopes of thwarting the GOP plan. "By knowing the issues that the Bush people are likely to move on, by getting the word out, I'm hoping that we can rally grassroots opposition--turn some of the anger at how Bush got elected into issue-based activism," he says. Without such pressure, Sanders fears, the Republicans "will pass a lot of legislation, and they will begin to construct the fantasy that Bush, against all expectations, is a successful President.''

The biggest concern of Sanders and other progressives is that the fantasy will be aided, not hindered, by Democrats who think they can play nice with Bush early on and then channel fury over the 2000 election into a Congressional sweep in 2002 and a reclaiming of the White House in 2004. "Either we break up this congenial, very nice, big-smile lie of bipartisanship or we will see our message corrupted by the suggestion that Democrats and Republicans really aren't all that different," says Democratic Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. "If that happens, we will make it look like Ralph Nader was right when he said there were no differences between the parties, and we will lose any advantage coming out of the 2000 election.''

It is not difficult to imagine how House and Senate Democrats might hand Bush the tools he needs. The Bush-as-uniter spin is already being sold--tune in to most mainstream political punditry and you'll hear the theory that the 107th Congress will spend two years straddling the political fifty-yard line as power rests in the hands of "moderate'' blueblood Republicans like Senator Lincoln Chafee and Representative Amo Houghton, along with conservative Blue Dog Democrats like Representative Charles Stenholm and Senator John Breaux. To hear the pundits tell it, Stenholm, Breaux and their Blue Dog and slightly more moderate New Dog colleagues are the new kings of the hill--compromise-prone Democrats whom their own party leaders cannot afford to lose and whom the Bush Administration will not be able to ignore. With Congress more closely divided than at any point in recent American history--the GOP controls the House by only ten seats and the Senate is evenly divided, with Vice President Dick Cheney the tiebreaking vote--and with a President "swept'' into office by a disputed 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision, the theory goes that legislation passing this Congress will have to be vetted by a coterie of centrist Democrats and Republicans.

Even for some progressives, that's an appealing prospect. Better a Bush tied to the center than the right wing untethered, according to this view. After all, while Bush's contested selection may have made him a weakened President, he arrives in Washington with an advantage no Republican President has enjoyed since Eisenhower in 1953: a Republican-controlled House and an effectively Republican Senate. With the party's Taliban wing counseling a "go for it'' strategy, this trifecta could pay out for the GOP social and economic agenda [see Robert Dreyfuss, page 16].

Realistically, however, Bush and his aides know they lack a mandate for an elbows-flying charge--hence the appeal to "bipartisanship.'' Their model is Ronald Reagan, who arrived in Washington in 1981 with a bold agenda and a Republican Senate but a distinct GOP deficit in the House. Reagan's team quickly identified thirty to forty "Boll Weevil" Democrats--Southern conservatives who for reasons of region or personal history had not made a party switch--and a handful of Northern white ethnic "Reagan Democrats." So ardently did the Reaganites pursue the renegade Democrats that some veteran Republicans complained they could get better treatment by switching parties. But no one questioned the necessity of the Reagan strategy, and it paid off handsomely with the passage of key components of the new President's trickle-down economic agenda and Cold Warrior foreign policy.

It will be harder for Bush than it was for Reagan, who won the 1980 election with a clear majority. But those who imagine Bush as a bumbling incompetent would be wise to recall his able forays into "bipartisanship'' as governor of Texas. And they would be wiser still to ponder the politics of the Blue Dog Southern Democrats and at least some of the Democratic Leadership Council-linked New Dogs--who are ideologically and politically inclined to become the Boll Weevils of the new Congress. "The Democrats that George W. Bush is preparing to work with in a 'bipartisan' fashion would, objectively, be Republicans if they lived north of the Mason-Dixon line,'' says Jackson. "So there is no bipartisanship here; there is no reaching out to people who have honest differences and forging unexpected coalitions. There is just conservatives getting together. But, I tell you, if we allow the press to suggest that this is a bipartisan coalition, we will play into the hands of Bush, the Republicans and the Greens, who say there is no hope for the Democratic Party.''

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