Politics of division

August 01, 2004

DIVIDE AND conquer. A time-honored tactic of generals that worked splendidly for Republicans in 1994 who broke 40 years of Democratic dominance in Congress with wedge issues such as taxes, gun control and the backlash to President Bill Clinton's ambitious plan to overhaul the nation's health care system.

GOP generals didn't stop there, however. They raised partisanship to a bold, new level on Capitol Hill. And in the nearly four years since they took over the White House as well, they have so jealously guarded the levers of power that Democrats have largely been reduced to background noise. About all they can do is jam the works in the Senate.

But there is a cost to this harsh and exclusionary style of politics, and Republicans may find the bill comes due this fall.

As the Democrats demonstrated at their national convention last week, they have been not only unified by their time in the wilderness, but mobilized and even radicalized. They still disagree among themselves on many issues, but are willing to march as one against a president and a party they see as a common enemy.

"We're mad as hell," Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York declared as convention delegates roared approval. "This country is our country, this flag belongs to us all, and we will fight and we will win."

What's more, the burden of governing weighs ever more heavily on a party that has chosen to go it alone. There's no help in shaping policy and rounding up votes, no one to share responsibility for initiatives that don't turn out so well.

Republicans are headed into the campaign saddled not only with a disastrous misadventure in Iraq and a shaky economy but with a Congress that has done almost nothing for two years but pass a Medicare prescription drug bill that threatens to harm an immensely popular program. They have no one to blame but one another.

Democrats had their own experience with the arrogance of power during their 40-year reign in Congress. Committee chairmen ruled like feudal lords and Republicans were tolerated but rarely allowed in rooms where deals were made. GOP resentment at such treatment contributed to the Democrats' downfall in 1994.

It's not yet clear whether a reversal of fortunes is at hand as Democrats set off with the battle cry "11-2-1" - for the 11 seats in the House, two in the Senate and one in the Oval Office they need to return to full power. Much will depend on whether their standard-bearer, John Kerry, can make his own case so well that his party is running with the wind at its back. But the politics of division have ensured that many of the key elements for a reversal are in place.

Instead of divide and conquer, Democrats say their strategy this year is to embrace and win over those who feel alienated by the Republicans. If they succeed, Mr. Kerry and congressional leaders are promising a more cooperative approach to governing.

It's a refreshing idea, long overdue. Republicans would be wise to match the pledge.

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