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Divided Nation Syndrome

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February 7, 2006

By BONNIE ERBE

Divided nation, divided nation. Sometimes I think if I hear that phrase just one more time, I’ll scream. In a country where a 55 percent margin of victory in a presidential race is and historically has been considered a landslide, I wish someone would explain when we were NOT a divided nation.

During the Civil War, perhaps? During McCarthyism? And more recently, during Watergate, or the Vietnam War?

And yet, it does seem we are much more polarized as a people than I recall us being two or three decades ago. Why does it seem worse?

I covered Congress for a now-defunct radio network from 1983-1989. When I first began following Hill politics on a daily basis, Republicans and Democrats certainly had their differences on the House and Senate floors and in committee sessions. But at day’s end, they traded backslaps and paired off in bipartisan combinations for the golf course or the bar.

This is no longer so.

I trace the beginning of the end of bipartisan cooperation (and, more importantly, friendship) to Newt Gingrich’s rise to power. In the ’80s, he was a backbencher and a flame-thrower who climbed the ladder of invective to the speaker’s chair. He gained media coverage by lashing out at Democrats using decibel levels to which the media were then unaccustomed. He was Crossfire before Crossfire was cool. And he brought into fashion televised tantrum-throwing later honed to perfection by the Ann Coulters, James Carvilles and Bill O’Reillys of the world.

Unfortunately for Gingrich, his flame-throwing caused him to flame out summarily. What he gained for his party (the first House Republican majority in 40 years) he lost personally by governing at the margin.

He shut down the federal government in a failed muster-match showdown with then-President Bill Clinton. In 1997, Gingrich led Republicans into a humiliating fight over partisan attachments (census changes, among others) to a disaster-relief bill, which Clinton vetoed.

Obviously, there are other takes on which side threw flames first and over what issue. In the spirit of evenhandedness, a Republican friend who served in the House in the ’80s traces the beginning of the end of bipartisan spirit to Speaker Jim Wright’s failed leadership and the Democrat’s treatment of the then-minority party. But we firmly agree on one point: whichever side failed first, leadership is to blame for the climate of division.

Fast forward to today. We hear little these days from George W. Bush about uniting America (although he first campaigned for office as a “uniter”) and much more about “playing to his base.” Most conservative commentators noted that last week’s State of the Union address was a pitch to his base and not much more. No wonder his approval numbers mirror his base’s percentage of the voting population.

Clinton campaigned as a “uniter.” As soon as he took office, however, he threw his left-wing base a few high-cost sops: a change in military rules on gays in the services (the much-maligned “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy) and a major push toward nationalized health care. Badly burned by his attempts to govern from the left, he spent most of the rest of his two terms working to make up for that _ for instance, revamping welfare “as we knew it”; launching international military efforts and courting traditionally Republican Wall Street.

Bush has made no such centrist efforts. In fact, late last year he offered one of the most significant lagniappes of his tenure _ if not THE most significant _ to conservatives: withdrawing Harriet Miers’s nomination to the Supreme Court when arch-conservative columnists (George Will, Charles Krauthammer _ the list goes on ad nauseam) went into conniptions that she might not be conservative enough to tilt the bench rightward.

Given Bush’s governance and his ceaseless kowtowing to the strident minority, no wonder we’re divided. From arrogant isolationism on the international scene, to reversing five decades of progress on individual rights at home, no wonder we’re divided. When you think about it, how could we be anything but?

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)