Op-Ed

Seriously, A Political Turn for The Better

E.J. Dionne

Politics came back to Washington last week—a tentative, muted, awkward kind of politics that sounded nothing like the public debate of only a few weeks ago. The national crisis has led Republicans and Democrats to stop throwing loaded lockboxes at each other and challenging each other’s moral standing. But on domestic issues—trade, taxes, agriculture and spending—Republicans and Democrats are arguing once again.

That’s the way it should be. Terrorists shouldn’t be allowed to deprive our nation of open debate or to force politicians into pretending they agree when they don’t.

But here’s the question: Will the profound seriousness that overtook the country after the assaults of Sept. 11 cause a more permanent change in politics as practiced in the past decade? After years in which politicians talked about bipartisanship but were bent on its opposite, has the real thing finally shown up, and will it stick around? Perhaps more importantly, when debates do get partisan—they must and should at times—will they entail the mean and petty partisanship to which we’ve become accustomed? There’s no doubt that politics have changed for now. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt had almost nothing to do with each other until they were brought together by terrorism. Suddenly, the party of the president is rewriting bills to accommodate the opposition. Political adversaries are saying kind words about each other—and even seem to mean what they say. The mood is all the more striking because no one was prepared for it. “This fall was lined up to be the most divisive congressional fall in history,” said Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican. “Now, the prospect of bickering has turned into a great sense of unity. Whether it’s sustainable, I have no idea.”

Even dissent has become bipartisan. It’s inspiring to see Rep. Maxine Waters, a left-wing California Democrat, standing with Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr., a right-wing Georgia Republican, to ask hard questions about the new antiterrorism bill’s effect on civil liberties.

The tough guys of politics—the political consultants whose first, second and third jobs involve winning elections—are among those who think politics may have turned a corner. At the very least, they’re advising their clients to be very prudent in picking their fights. “One of the things you’ve seen is a desire for a very different kind of discourse,” says Republican pollster David Winston. Americans, he said, want to know that leaders (and preachers and even comedians) understand how much the world has changed. He argues that criticisms of statements by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Bill Maher of TV’s “Politically Incorrect” were not so much an attack on free speech as an assertion of new public norms.

He thinks this applies to politics, too. “The public sees there is a different political debate, that it can be done differently and with more civility.” This will create pressure for a different kind of political campaign. “Politicians are going to do tit-for-tat at their own risk,” Winston said.

Some politicians won’t know how to adjust. But many, says Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux, will try to define their position as “the sensible bipartisan solution” and to define their opponents as the ones “breaking the bipartisan coalition.” But that’s tricky, as Molyneux points out. Politicians will be tempted to tie all their proposals to the crisis created by Sept. 11—and they’ll be assailed as cynics if they seem to be using it to advance the agenda they had before the terrorist attacks.

Politicians are operating in a climate of public opinion that is changing before our eyes. Polls show a reversal in the anti-government sentiment that has been so powerful for so long. That may prove a favorite adage of former Defense secretary and senator William Cohen: “Government is the enemy until you need a friend.” And, paradoxically at this time of increased anxiety, many more Americans think the nation is on the “right track” now than did so before the attacks.

Winston says those polling results show that Americans, while worried about the future, are gratified by the country’s new sense of community. “People saw this as a horrible event,” he says. “They think the economy is going to get worse. They think life is going to be tougher. But they also saw these firefighters stepping up to the plate. These were good people. They saw millions of Americans reaching into their pockets to make contributions. They saw people crashing that plane into the ground in order to save the lives of others. They saw people who acted as Americans who made them feel proud.” If a new fear is one product of Sept. 11, a new solidarity is the other.

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But watch the warning signs. Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster, thinks the rise in those “right track” numbers involves a rallying of the country, and especially Republicans, to the president in this time of crisis. Of the bipartisanship, she says firmly: “I don’t think it’s going to last.”

Already, the domestic issues coming to the fore are driving each party back to its traditional—one might also say principled—positions. When the parties argue about whether the federal government should take over airline security or about the elements of the economic stimulus package, they inevitably confront their conflicting views about the role and purpose of government.

Nor is the evidence from this year’s political campaigns entirely reassuring to those who might hope for a move away from the primacy of political attack. In the Virginia governor’s race, for example, polls show Republican Mark L. Earley trailing Democrat Mark R. Warner. To change the dynamic of the contest, Earley went on the air with ads attacking Warner for allegedly favoring tax increases. The Warner side argues, with some justification, that the Earley attack distorts what Warner actually favors. The Earley side insists that taxes are a legitimate issue.

All run-of-the-mill stuff. But the Warner campaign is betting that the Sept. 11 attacks reduced the public’s patience for this kind of campaigning. It has responded with an ad of its own that begins: “During this challenging time, the last thing Virginia needs is negative attacks from Mark Earley.” The question: Is this the year when attacking attacks is more powerful than attacking taxes?

If we shouldn’t set our expectations too high for campaigns, we also shouldn’t pretend that wrapping all issues into bipartisan agreements is a guarantee of good legislation. Such logrolling leads to incoherent compromises at least as often as it produces best-of-all-worlds solutions. It’s clear, for example, that Congress sped the airline bailout bill through without properly working out the competing interests of management, stockholders, workers and taxpayers. The legislation, said Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, “was rushed through the legislative process without any independent assessment of the actual losses incurred by air carriers.”

And the country certainly doesn’t need the ruthless imposition of political orthodoxy in the name of national unity. At a time of war, there is always a temptation to throw around charges of treason against those who disagree with the president or the military.

But in this conflict, at least, the country has so far had the advantage of knowing that there are differences within the administration itself. If Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz can argue about the proper course of American policy, that opens space for debate in the country as a whole. The birth of left-right coalitions around issues such as civil liberties further reduces the chances of either party baiting the other for disloyalty.

We can’t really know if the current mood marks a decisive turn in politics. But we do know that no event since World War II has so shaken our nation. We know that the very seriousness of the problems the country confronts has already shoved old scandals off the front pages, the talk shows and cable television.

We also know that events of this magnitude make old slogans, left and right, seem stale, sometimes shamefully so. Only the most contorted analysis can lay the blame for this slaughter of innocents on “American Imperialism.” The rhetoric of free market omnipotence, so dominant for so long, became a bit less believable when Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed that the marketplace couldn’t keep the airlines flying; only the government, however clumsily, could do that.

And complaints about America’s alleged “moral bankruptcy” or “hedonism” have been laid low by the community spirit and selflessness of countless firefighters, rescue workers and volunteers. Our celebrities, suddenly, are not high-tech wizards, Hollywood beautiful people or hotshot investors, but public employees who soared in our esteem by simply doing their jobs—and ordinary citizens who simply behaved as citizens should.

We know, finally, that patriotism is now spoken of without any irony. The American flag, a politically contested symbol in the 40 Years War that began in the 1960s, has been restored as the banner representing the entire American community. This is not a trivial change. It suggests we might begin believing again in common endeavor.

There is no getting around the close division in both houses of Congress or the fact that both parties will fight fiercely for control in the 2002 elections, war or no war. Politicians will continue to do what it takes to win. People of strong views will continue to want their ideas to prevail. I want national health insurance no less devoutly than my conservative friends wish for more tax cuts. Sept. 11 did not change that.

But perhaps the way we argue out such differences will change. Our hope should be not for an end to partisanship, but for the beginning of a New Partisanship, a debate over real differences with less meanness and manipulation. We might begin by taking the current seriousness seriously, and by agreeing that politics, public life and public service are too important to be trivialized or denigrated. If we don’t believe that now, we never will.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.