- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Schizophrenic partisanship ran rampant among the Democrats in Washington over the past several weeks, like manic depression without lithium. Engaging in bipartisan cooperation on some issues, displaying vituperative rancor on others, they spent the rest of the tossing potential attacks up against the wall, waiting to see if anything stuck.

Consider a few recent episodes. Nearly all the Democrats opposed the president’s economic growth legislation. Yet, then they joined Republicans working together to accomplish a bipartisan victory on the global AIDS initiative.Yesterday, the House wrangled over a refundable low-income child-care tax credit along partisan lines while the Senate passed the bill 98-2.

Is this the political equivalent of a bipolar disorder? Not exactly, but viewing their behavior as the three faces of partisanship helps make sense of Washington’s confusing split personality.

Partisanship’s multiple personalities are: Tactical obstruction, strategic cooperation, and experimental attack. Examples of each were on display over the past several weeks and will continue, albeit in different proportions, as the campaign season unfolds over the next 18 months.

Tactical obstruction manifests itself principally in the Senate, and it could produce massive legislative gridlock. Now that the budget process and its special legislative procedures for the economic growth package are behind us, literally every bill and executive or judicial nomination could take 60 votes to pass. Under the Senate’s rules, legislation requires either unanimous consent or 60 votes to invoke “cloture” and bring the bill or nomination to a final vote.

Democrats, however, will not adopt this procedural, scorched-earth approach on every issue. Instead, they will carefully select filibusters and delaying tactics. Part of the reason for this is due to Republicans laying the predicate for “obstructionism” with voters last fall and continuing this year. However, on measures that energize the Democratic base, such as deterring judicial nominations or further tax cuts, continued opposition to simple majority rule will likely continue.

Yet, using obstruction as a sole tactic has its limits. Democrats simply cannot block everything and not pay a political price. Strategic cooperation is an antidote to those charges. It is the second face of partisanship and emerges where Democrats believe it is in their interest to cooperate in passing legislation or allow confirmations to proceed. The current debate over Medicare is a good example. As recently as last week, before the Finance Committee reached an agreement on Medicare reform, many Republican insiders thought Senate Democrats would ultimately filibuster and force a 60-vote threshold on Medicare-prescription drug legislation. Yet, both Democratic leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, indicated last week that they were not inclined to use the filibuster to block this legislation. Why?

Say hello to strategic cooperation. “They don’t want another ‘homeland security’ issue hung around their necks,” an Administration official said. Because of the political popularity of Medicare, opposition is tricky. Democrats unsuccessfully tried to exploit the issue in the last two election cycles without success. Therefore, when it comes to Medicare, enough Democrats in the Senate will choose to cooperate, paving the way to passage.

Finally, experimental attacks will continue as the third face of partisanship. When using this tactic, Democrats raise a series of charges against Republicans and the president to see what sticks. Most recently, Democrats such as Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, attacked the president on faulty or misleading intelligence reports regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq and the war on terrorism in general. In the Democrats’ world, the president may be unbeatable unless they can inflict a chink in his national security armor. Attacking him on WMD is an attempt to locate a political soft spot in an otherwise full metal jacket of the commander in chief.

Experimental attacks on the domestic front will seek to exploit weakness in the economy or promote populist, anti-business themes. A popular salvo insinuates Mr. Bush is too cozy with corporate interests. Presidential contender Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, told the Wall Street Journal last week that President Bush’s performance on taxes has been a “complete capitulation to corporate interests.” Expect this tactic to accelerate in the months ahead.

No doubt, certain individuals and relationships in Washington could stand to benefit from some therapy. Yet, the recent trends where lawmakers alternate between cooperation and conflict are not evidence of a growing political psychosis. They are contours of partisanship that help explain legislative behavior and electoral strategies in an often schizophrenic political age with Democrats struggling to find a rational approach to a popular Republican president.

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