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It is obvious that tens of millions of Americans thought naively that Barack Obama’s election would usher in a new era of civility and bipartisanship, a chance for a divided nation to come together in a spirit of political cooperation to deal with the nation’s pressing needs. They now know better.
Oh, the Congress will adopt this week or next the $800 billion-plus stimulus package the new president says is so necessary to prevent a disastrous situation from getting worse. There is no question about that. But before the House and Senate versions are brought into conjunction more valuable time will be lost and a lot of political blood spilled, dimming hopes for easy resolution later on of some the thornier issues like health care and education.
Moreover this has been among the shortest honeymoons granted a president in recent memory. Only three weeks out, the new chief executive has had to resort to some of the same kind of tough partisan language that landed him the job and to take his show back on the road to prevent his proposal from blowing apart completely. Despite one of the rarest of occasions, the confluence of disparate economic views into one stream of agreement on the need for quick action, Republicans in both houses have decided differently, reflecting a losing petulance that, to say the least, seems self-destructive.
In the meantime, the leadership of the Democratic majority hasn’t done much better by its new president, especially in the long term, setting the stage for more of the "we’re in charge" rhetoric and obstinacy that helped make the final years of the Bush administration so difficult. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, raised on the down and dirty machine politics of Baltimore where her father was mayor, made it clear the other day that bipartisanship was overvalued. On the other end of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems to have tempered his angst enough to help along a compromise with centrist Republicans to assure the huge bailout package would pass.
For those who have been in this town longer than a few days, none of this is terribly surprising despite the Obama promise, one made by nearly every president entering office. The nastiness of Capitol Hill politics has become increasingly worse, having devolved from a dismal swamp of two wars brought on by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that initially had resulted in a strong show of unity between the parties. Almost from that point on civility became a victim of growing anger over measures that some lawmakers saw as a clear threat to America’s long held democratic beliefs both at home and abroad and others regarded as necessary evils to prevent further assaults on the homeland.
Neither party is exonerated from the gridlock that has prevented meaningful action on most of the problems from immigration to Social Security and Medicare reform. Now, with the scary numbers of the crippled economy besieging us daily, the people’s choices in Congress, most of whom have little backgrounds for their jobs, are engaged in the same old same old, dithering over the fine print and jockeying for political position.
No one expected this not to come off without debate, but it was reasonable to expect timely and responsible action for a worsening crisis. The details will shake out and some may not work the way they were intended, but the worst sin is to be so afraid of making a mistake that it results in paralysis. The Republicans lost the election, big time, the second one in a row. That should tell them something, but apparently it hasn’t. The Democrats seem to have fallen back into the old ways that cost them control of Congress in 1994 and helped elect George W. Bush.
Well, welcome to the White House, Mr. President. Perhaps if you had spent more time at your desk in the Senate the last two years, you would have understood better the enormous difficulties you face in dealing with the kindergarteners on the other end of the avenue. But then you probably wouldn’t have been president.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)