The well-meaning and optimistic have now stood up, as they seem to do every two years, and made their claims. Such a close majority for the Democrats in the Senate, they say, will oblige leadership to steer a centrist course. Having received such a thumping from America, they say, President Bush must needs be conciliatory in his lame-duck session. And the House Democrats know they were elected because of frustration over hyper partisanship, they say, and so the people’s chamber will surely show a new comity. We hear it from all quarters: high hopes for bipartisanship, nonpartisanship, and just plain good behavior.
My prediction: not going to happen. To claim otherwise is to ignore human nature, political forces at work, and recent history.
Speaker-to-be Pelosi has already shocked her colleagues by supporting ethically challenged and provocative partisan choices for key positions. Her defeated pick for Majority leader (a choice not shared by the majority of her caucus) was an unindicted Abscam bribery-scandal graduate. Her pick to lead the Intelligence Committee was the sixth federal judge ever to be impeached — for bribery — by the U.S. Senate, at a time when it was controlled by his own party. In both cases, she passed over candidates who are more respected by Republicans.
While in the case of the Majority leader more collaborative heads prevailed and the respected Steny Hoyer has taken the reins, still the Speaker is not alone in battling a strong urge to stick it to the other side. The Democrats have been waiting for years to hold a majority so they can renew their subpoena powers and begin a long list of investigations that will recall the Clinton years when the Republicans seemed to have someone from the White House on the witness stand every week. One member with much authority on this matter, John Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has a veritable laundry list he plans to go after.
Over in the Senate, at least nine members, from both parties, think they are running for president. They must take strong positions on the war in Iraq. General Abizaid, in a recent appearance before these august figures, was treated to an amusing bickering match as Senators Biden, Clinton, and McCain testily staked out their territory. And while the Democrats have made it clear they plan to obstruct federal nominations that they used to have to sit back and accept, the Republicans have reconstituted their leadership dream team in the form of Senators Mitch McConnell and Trent Lott, veterans of the long knives of the 1990’s.
Just in case there was a glimmer of hope left in the minds of those who predict a new era of civility, President Bush appears poised to renew his recess appointment of U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, one of his most controversial (and despised by Democrats) appointees.
I do not hope for much in the way of collaboration in our nation’s capital. Though many individual members find it easy, and are eager, to work with others on crafting solutions to the problems and issues that face us, the forces that cut against being able to do this are very, very strong. And leadership, both Republican and Democrat, has already made it clear that those who compromise are to be punished and those who cleave to the party line rewarded.
Razor-thin margins and sour grapes will conspire to produce more partisanship, not less. The result will be gridlock. We are poised for a perfect storm of political shin-kicking and eye-gouging.
But, if we can ignore the food fights and focus on the accomplishments, we may be well pleased with the outcome. After all, we Americans are not stupid, the dismissive attitude by political elites to the contrary. We have voted for divided federal government. While in this age of permanent partisanship this is a recipe for a do-nothing congress, it is also perhaps the best way to ensure that Washington is on a short leash and does not go too far. If there is nothing else to be taken from the results of this year’s elections, it is this: Those with their hands on the levers of national power were jerked back. And even though the winners seem not to comprehend that lesson, things may work out pretty well nonetheless.
Because, in our towns and communities, there is a great deal of work to be done. While Washington fights, perhaps we can get on with it.