Political normalcy, bickering is back in

October 01, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Various public officials, starting with President Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have been working overtime urging Americans to resume their normal lives as best they can in the wake of the New York and Washington terrorist attacks and the nation's collective feeling of insecurity.

Part of this sermon is the assurance of administration officials that America is not going to war in the conventional sense in which an enemy nation is easily identified and obvious military targets are out there to hit.

No draft of uniformed manpower is contemplated, and there is no plan to convert the country's industrial might into an arsenal for the weapons of war. Detroit will continue to make cars, not tanks.

As of now, any gas rationing will be imposed only by the high prices at the pump and whether consumers are willing and able to pay it. The windshield stickers of World War II that indicated how many gallons you were entitled to buy, along with precious ration stamps, are nowhere in sight, at least not yet.

So there may well be normalcy of sorts on the home front barring more terrorist attacks, which certainly can't be ruled out, as the nation buckles down to the long-range effort that Mr. Bush has promised to root out terrorists and terrorism.

But with that normalcy, the president has to expect that the gung-ho attitude now widely prevailing will eventually start to erode, especially on Capitol Hill, and with it a diminution of his political leverage.

It's one thing for a president to keep the country mobilized behind him in a shooting war, as Franklin D. Roosevelt largely achieved. It's another when the war being conducted is shadowy, as this one figures to be.

Politically, the vows of bipartisanship heard from Democrats and Republicans alike in the wake of Mr. Bush's eloquent speech to Congress are already sounding a bit shaky.

Democratic leaders are warning their Republican counterparts not to try to push through a partisan agenda on a range of issues under cover of we're-all-in-this-together. Some Republicans in turn are chafing at their leaders, suggesting they are rolling over for harmony's sake.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said a mouthful with a few words the other day when he observed that "bipartisanship is abnormal." Getting back to normal can mean the two parties going back to the contentiousness and bickering that marked this session of Congress pre-Sept. 11.

The bipartisan agreement that air security must be vastly improved and immediately, for example, already has run into partisan sniping. The Republicans want to tighten up the system, leaving much of the passenger and baggage screening to the airlines and airports, with some money and supervision from Uncle Sam. The Democrats want the government to take the task over completely by making all screeners federal employees.

Now that Congress has accepted the Bush call to bail out the airlines in their troubled time to the tune of $15 billion, the Democrats also want jobless, health and training benefits for workers thrown onto the street by the carriers' cutbacks. Talk of a stimulus package for the struggling economy has the Republicans pushing for capital gains cuts even as the Democrats cry "enough already" to further Bush breaks for the well-heeled.

More and more such differences are in the cards down the road if the sense of normalcy in the country does return. Republican and Democratic leaders alike in Congress inevitably, in the absence of a hot shooting war, will want to resume their own partisan business.

The swift climb in Mr. Bush's popularity, along with the crisis, dictates prudence on the part of the Democrats in challenging him right now. But that popularity isn't likely to remain so high as the flag-waving and chants of "U.S.A.!" die down and the crisis atmosphere gives way to public acceptance that any victory may be a long way off and not clear-cut.

Much will depend on whether whatever military action finally is initiated can be claimed as successful, and in the meantime whether the terrorists cooperate by laying low for awhile, not committing more acts to arouse the legislative leaders to further unnatural acts of bipartisanship.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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