Little chance of unifying Congress

January 05, 2001|By Eric M. Uslaner

NOW THAT WE have a president-elect, we hear increasing calls to put partisanship aside. Don't count on it.

The Democrats and Republicans are further apart ideologically than they have been for most of this century. They are divided not only on economics, but also on cultural issues that aren't so readily compromised: abortion, immigration, affirmative action and gun control.

The number of moderates in each party has plummeted since the 1970s. There are far fewer Southern Democrats or Northeastern Republicans.

The parties are defined by their "base" voters, who push the Democrats to the left and the Republicans to the right. Each commands an almost equal share of voter loyalty. When there were lots of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, both parties appealed to the center.

In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had better relations with the Democratic congressional leadership than he did with the leaders of his own party. House Republican Leader Joe Martin regularly invited Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn to dinner at his home.

Today, Democratic and Republican leaders find little common ground and don't socialize with each other. Speaker Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt made news recently by announcing that they had met for the first time in several months.

The 1998 debate over the impeachment of President Clinton intensified partisan hostility. Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., admonished Republicans: "Bullies get theirs, and you're going to get yours!" The Democrats spent $5 million to ensure that one of the Republican managers of impeachment "got his" in the 2000 House elections.

The electoral maps suggest a close election, but don't show the landslide for Vice President Al Gore in most of the Northeast and an equally massive victory for George W. Bush in the South. Mr. Gore received about 60 percent of the vote in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Not even Franklin D. Roosevelt's sweep in 1936 could top Mr. Gore's vote shares in these states (though the Lyndon Johnson landslide in 1964 was larger). The South is almost as predominantly Republican.

The Bush administration will come to power with each side believing the opposition tried to steal the election. The Supreme Court decision that ended the legal debate did not resolve the issue. The public believes the court's decision reflects the justices' political preferences, not legal interpretations. More than one-third of the supporters of each presidential candidate said that they could not accept the election of the other as legitimate.

In our polarized politics, each party's followers see the other as less than loyal. Republicans challenged the patriotism of Bill Clinton and some House Democrats who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War. Democrats responded in kind, calling Republicans "a bunch of fascists" and "religious wackos."

This is a time, some say, to stop the madness and restore civility to political life as we did under Eisenhower.

Democrats demand half of the leadership positions in the Senate. They looked askance when Mr. Bush promised to appoint Democratic senators to his Cabinet. GOP senators chose strident conservatives over moderates for their leadership team.

For House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, bipartisanship means Democrats "want us to buy their partisanship." The quest for common ground is like the old African-American spiritual: "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."

With such an even division of power, each side is now looking forward to the next elections. Somewhere out there is a majority, each side believes.

Newt Gingrich rose from an obscure backbencher in the Republican Party to speaker of the House by vilifying the opposition, not by cooperating with it. We now have two minority parties, each excelling at rhetoric and neither prepared to govern.

With the stakes so high, neither party can afford to back down. A good loser, after all, is a loser.

Eric M. Uslaner is professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park and author of "The Decline of Comity in Congress" (University of Michigan Press, 1993).

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