- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2000

Bipartisanship is in. But bipartisanship in Washington has a number of different aspects, and it seems safe to say that some of them are going to be more "in" than others.

I will admit to being one of those who was hoping that the departure of our 42nd president from office would lead to a general lowering of the temperature in Washington. It takes a lot of energy to remain at your opponent's throat at all times, and that pretty well describes conditions during the Clinton years.

The tumult of the 2000 election looked like it was going to dash those hopes. And, to be sure, there are going to be hard feelings over the Florida struggle for a long time. Some Democrats, for example, are now pronouncing the Supreme Court to have lost its legitimacy.

What can a conservative say to this but "welcome to the club"? Conservatives have been accusing the court of unprincipled jurisprudence for ages. Bush vs. Gore has nothing on Roe vs. Wade. In any case, these Democrats will probably get over it, because denouncing the court's illegitimacy in this fashion misunderstands the source of its legitimacy in the first place: It comes not from getting the right answer but from providing a final answer. We can live with wrong answers more readily than we could live without a final authority on what the Constitution requires.

And what we mainly saw was serious Democrats accepting that the outcome in the Supreme Court was final. Al Gore truly did end his efforts on a gracious note, with George W. Bush responding in kind.

This in turn leads to the first type of bipartisanship in Washington: the bipartisanship of manners. There was an interesting display of it at the Madison Hotel Dec. 8, when several dozen current and former senior officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations gathered for a holiday lunch. The late Marshall B. Coyne, the Washington real estate developer and the founder of the Madison, hosted this annual gathering for 14 years, in association with former Agriculture Secretary Jack Block. This year Coyne's grandchildren hosted it in his memory.

The point of the lunch is social, but the point it makes, as various current and former Washington bigs rise to offer their new year's predictions, some in earnest and some in jest, is that the city would be unbearable if the genuine partisan differences that deeply and often bitterly divide our politics manifested themselves in all aspects of daily life here. Imagine permanent "Geraldo," not just on television but in every interaction between a Republican and a Democrat in Washington. Imagine every conversation conducted according to the day's talking points.

Washington, as has often been said, is a company town, and the company is the federal government, but the disputes that come up in relation to it can usually be confined to the arenas in which they are appropriate. This sentiment is what makes Donna Shalala, Bill Richardson and Rodney Slater turn up at lunch with Brent Scrowcroft, John Sununu and Jack Kemp, to hear Jim Miller predict that the next president would appoint Pat Buchanan as U.S. trade representative so he can close the office down and Ralph Nader as commerce secretary so he can close the office down. Or, on a more serious note, Jim Woolsey predicting that next year will be the one in which Saddam Hussein pulls "some real horror show."

But this bipartisanship of manners should not be confused with bipartisanship on policy. That is a far more elusive matter, for two reasons. In the first place, while Miss Shalala and Mr. Sununu have no need to scream at each other whenever they are in the same room, and do not, they (presumably) have very different views of what government should do on a whole slew of subjects. Those views are not necessarily easily reconcilable. Nor should they necessarily be. Bipartisanship on policy usually occurs not out of some disinterested effort to meet in the middle but because one side has framed its preferences so well that the other is afraid of opposing them.

There are some areas in which bipartisanship is a product of general agreement. Foreign policy is one, and defense looks to be another, as a consensus is growing for increased Pentagon funding. But more often, policy outcomes are the result of partisan clashes in which someone has the votes to get his way and someone doesn't. That is unlikely to change any time soon. And far from being a force for political instability, it is usually just the opposite. Each side gives its all and takes satisfaction from that effort even in defeat as it prepares to fight another day.

By all means, let's have lunch. And let's have a civil tone. But let's not forget that underlying "bipartisanship" are two opposed partisanships. And there is nothing wrong with that.


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