What is Tom Daschle up to? "In this divided government," he declared upon becoming Senate majority leader, "we are required to find common ground and seek meaningful bipartisanship." He told the press he would not seek repeal of even the most ill considered portions of President Bush's tax cut. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Daschle added, "I believe the only way forward is to embrace a spirit of principled compromise." He invoked campaign finance reform as a bill on which both parties compromised and moved forward.
Daschle seems to be up to several things. One is to be the non-Bush, distinguishing himself from the man who campaigned as a conciliator but has governed as a partisan. The second is to hold together his slender majority, which unfortunately contains several quasi-Republicans. The third is to give the media elite what they insist the public wants. Daschle's conciliatory June 10 op-ed piece echoed the Times's editorial advice of a week earlier: "Mr. Daschle can answer [Republican] threats by relentlessly offering to work with Republicans... . Making sure to facilitate some, if not all, appointments would send a signal."
Shame on the Times. The Republicans, in their turn at bat, swing for the fences and run roughshod over the rules. Now that the Democrats finally get a shot, they are supposed to be mannered and decorous.
The much-quoted Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press contends that the public craves bipartisanship. But a politician who mistakes that platitude for strategic advice, and behaves like a lamb in a den of lions, should seek other employment. Even my Boston Globe colleague David Shribman, in an otherwise shrewd column differentiating tactical feint from principle, invoked the 1965 vote for Medicare as "true bipartisanship."
It's possible, of course, that Daschle is merely posturing--taking the high road as Senate leader and letting his Democratic legislative allies make the real fights. In Daschle's first days in office, some of this was indicated. Republicans were threatening a coup by refusing to give up power in key committees unless Democrats promised to send all Bush nominations to the Senate floor. Democrats were justifiably worried that Zell Miller of Georgia might reciprocate Jim Jeffords's party switch, returning control to the GOP.
But it is one thing to make gestures of civility and quite another to reinforce a conventional wisdom that is, in the end, utterly debilitating to Democrats.
Let's unpack the several fallacies in the paeans to bipartisanship. For one thing, most effective politicians have succeeded not by narrowing differences with the other side but by rallying public opinion to their vision. Lyndon Johnson, a consummate strategist, did not win enactment of Medicare by being a good bipartisan. Republicans had been blocking socialized medicine since the Roosevelt era. LBJ won passage of Medicare by cleaning the Republicans' clock. That 13 Senate Republicans joined nearly all Democrats on the final vote only reflects how effectively Johnson had won a smashing partisan victory: By final passage, Medicare was simply too popular to oppose. Bipartisan it was not. Likewise Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut.
Contrary to Daschle and the Times, campaign finance reform is anything but a bipartisan triumph. With the support of nearly all Democrats, it narrowly passed the Senate thanks to the defection of a few Republicans. To win those votes, liberal sponsors had to water it down. And in the House, it is Republicans who are keeping it bottled up. Some bipartisanship.
By the same token, George W. Bush got his tax bill through Congress by kicking the stuffings out of the bewildered Democratic opposition. Only after Senate Democrats (and a few renegade Republicans) woke up and tempered the bill a bit did Bush posture as a bipartisan in the endgame. But the bill was still a smashing win for the Republicans and not a polite bipartisan compromise.
Bipartisanship is sometimes a necessary tactic. It is never a philosophy of governance. Otherwise, why have two parties?
In truth, majorities-in-waiting want progressive leadership on a wide range of issues that, if articulated, favor neither Republican programs nor mushy centrist ones. Americans want secure health insurance. They want decent child care. They want living wages for workers, and other policies that make it possible to raise a family and hold a job.
When Lyndon Johnson wiped out Barry Goldwater in the 1964 landslide election, what did conservatives do? To hear The New York Times editorialists tell it, you'd think they asked themselves: "How can we become more like the Democrats?" You'd think whey went off and devised a Republican Leadership Council, complete with tame policy intellectuals urging Republicans to move more to the center as New Republicans (they would have had an aptly named and edited magazine).
But that's not what the right did. What they did was build a movement. They cultivated natural allies in the business community and financed a generation of right-wing intellectuals. They did grass-roots politics. And 16 years later, in 1980, they took power.
Today, movement conservatives have George W. Bush dancing to their tune as The Wall Street Journal, Fox, and MSNBC cheer them on. As balance we have "liberal" New York Times editorials urging Daschle to model politesse. But Democrats will never win political battles just by making nice. They need the courage of their convictions to win the trust of the country.