Does it have to be this nasty?
The negotiations to balance the budget have been characterized by the sort of pettiness and angry rhetoric that lead many Americans to turn off completely from politics and politicians. The first government shutdown was precipitated by House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s anger at being slighted by the president on Air Force One. Democrats took to the House floor to call the Georgia Republican a “crybaby.” The second shutdown has been prolonged by House freshmen, who took to the floor to accuse the president of being a “liar.” The holiday spirit has not reached Washington.
The Senate is losing some of its most respected members - Bill Bradley, D-N.J., Sam Nunn, D-Ga., Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., and Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., to name four - not because they faced tough campaigns, but because they don’t want to be there anymore. The same pattern has emerged in the House, with Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., and Anthony C. Beilenson, D-Calif., among the most recent to take their hats out of the ring. There is much talk that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., may return to California to run for governor - a fourth statewide run in eight years is preferable to four more years in Washington.
With the government shutdown and U.S. corporate leaders taking out ads to tell both parties that “the party is over,” the Senate spent an entire day last week debating whether to enforce a subpoena against President Clinton for lawyers’ notes that he had already agreed to hand over to the special prosecutor and the Senate. .
At the end, the vote had every Republican on one side, and every Democrat on the other. Decisions about real issues don’t divide exactly on partisan lines. An independent report commissioned by the Resolution Trust Corp. found that the Clintons had done nothing wrong with respect to their investment in Whitewater, and recommended that the RTC stop investigating.
But that won’t stop Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, R-N.Y., or special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr, appointed because Republicans feared that his predecessor - an old-school, less-partisan Republican - wouldn’t be tough enough. Archibald Cox was fired in the famous Saturday night massacre for being too tough on the president; today, as Robert B. Fiske Jr., the first Whitewater prosecutor found, you get fired for looking too much like an old-school professional instead of a ‘90s attack dog.
What used to be unthinkable has now become routine. Leaders have become targets. Democrats have vowed to do to Gingrich what he did to former Speaker Jim Wright. Both the president and the speaker are under investigation by special counsels and congressional committees. The speaker’s associates refer to the president as a “crook,” and the president’s press secretary says Republicans want old people to die (he later apologized). Longtime Washington observers say they have never seen the city so mean-spirited and divided, without even the pretense of civility that was prized by President Reagan and then-Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.
There are many theories about why things have gotten so bad. Republicans point to the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Judge Robert H. Bork as the beginning of nastiness; Democrats are more likely to date it from Gingrich’s successful campaign to depose Wright - whom Gingrich still refers to as a “crook.”
Ideology and personality push the spiral downward; the debate is not about what will work, but about good and evil. The welfare state didn’t just fail. In Gingrich’s version, it has driven people to kill their children (Susan Smith) and, more recently, to rip a baby from a mother’s womb. Partisan red meat that was once a staple of trashtalk radio is now in floor speeches - pushing radio even further over the responsible edge.
The Congress, especially the House, is divided more sharply along ideological lines than the country. The Democrats who survived in 1994 were those who represented safe, liberal districts. It was moderates who lost, and it is disgusted moderates who dominate the departure lists.
The more apathetic and disgusted moderate voters and politicians become, the more power the ideological extremists wield - particularly in a primary season, particularly on the Republican side, where they are growing in number, well-organized and convinced of their entitlement.
The media, for their part, encourage and feed the mean-spiritedness with their addiction to confrontation and equation of strong language with important news. That the president is angry at his critics gets more attention than policy positions. Wrongdoing is the story, not what’s done right. Had the RTC report come out the other way, it would have been front page news. As it was, most papers barely mentioned it. Perhaps one reason surveys find the media to be less cynical than the public is because they know they’re covering smoke, while most of us assume there must be a fire.
Conservatives like to frame questions in polarizing, ideological terms because, on most issues, the easiest way for them to win is by forcing a choice between right and left and eliminating the possibility of a middle. The media frame the public debate the same way - not because they favor conservatives, but because it is more entertaining that way.
Ultimately, of course, the public is also to blame. As long as demonizing your opponent helps you raise money and win elections, politicians will do it. As long as screaming matches and sensationalism draw viewers and listeners, the profit motive will push programming and coverage in that direction.
But in the budget fight, the public is, finally, demanding something else. The Gingrich-led revolution has run squarely into the checks and balances of the Constitution - and also into the reality that, in Americans politics, the center decides. The number of conservatives has grown, and support for a balanced budget is strong. But the president has gained strength as the moderating force on the revolution - bringing Democratic values to GOP numbers.
This is one of those negotiations where, however much enmity the principals have for each other, they all lose if they fail.
Against a background of the meanest politics in memory, the public is telling its leaders to find common ground. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., may spend 1996 impugning the president’s character, telling scare stories about a second term and running ads about Whitewater, but, right now, he must find some way to agree with Clinton on how to spend every dollar in the federal budget. Democrats may be hoping to make “Gingrich” their opponents’ middle name in 1996, but, right now, they need the speaker to lead his troops and forge a majority for compromise.
It’s far from a permanent cease-fire in the war that politics has become; but it is the best shot both parties have to convince the public that they understand the common message of the 1992 and 1994 elections - and that they are capable of delivering on it.