- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2001

"We hope for a bipartisan atmosphere in this new Congress, and we understand that this requires not just words, but deeds and actions." So spoke Minority Leader Dick Gephardt at the opening of the 107th Congress last week.

His counterpart in the Senate, Tom Daschle, echoed the same sentiments as both leaders urged a new spirit of cooperation and compromise between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. But after eight years of some of the most divisive politics Washington has ever seen, after a hard-fought campaign of personal attacks, class warfare, "Mediscare," raw racial politics and election day screw-ups cast as conspiracies, are we now to believe that the Democrats have had a Paul-like conversion on the way back to Capitol Hill?

Maybe. Maybe not. How are we to know if the Democrats are serious about their new promises of bipartisanship? Mr. Gephardt has it right. Words aren't enough. We've heard this call for cooperation ad infinitum usually just before the Democrat leadership levels their big guns on issues like health care or Social Security.

Rather than more promises, here are five steps the Democrats can take to prove they mean what they say this time.

1. Advise and consent nothing more. The purpose of Senate confirmation for an administration's Cabinet appointees and judges is not to provide a platform for every extremist group right or left to air their grievances or gin up their fund raising machines. It is to assess the integrity and competence of nominees in the Senate's constitutionally-mandated role to advise and consent. If the Democrats are serious, they will give the Bush Cabinet nominees full and fair hearings; ask tough questions but refuse the calls of extremists to reject nominees like John Ashcroft or Gale Norton on the basis of ideology. The same goes for George W. Bush's first Supreme Court nominee. If the Democrats decide to use abortion or conservative ideology as a litmus test over which to reject Mr. Bush's choice, any credibility to their claims of bipartisan cooperation will be permanently lost.

2. Accept real compromise. For the past eight years, Bill Clinton's definition of a legislative "compromise" would go something like, "my way or the highway" cleverly disguised as a "bipartisan approach." Here's how the ploy works. The Democrats develop their legislative approach to an issue. Republicans reject it. The Democrats then recruit a small number of Republicans to leap aboard a slightly modified version of the original and call it "bipartisan." Republicans again reject it, and the Democrats quickly condemn them as "do-nothing extremists."

Good politics but lousy policy as gridlock replaces progress. If the Democrats are really serious about trying to get something done for the American people over the next two years, they must understand that a handful of Republicans does not a real "bipartisan compromise" make. They will signal their sincerity if they are finally willing to "deal" on key issues like education, Social Security reform, a "patients' bill of rights," a broad-based tax cut and campaign-finance reform.

3. Send Bill a one-way ticket to New York. Few figures in American politics have been more divisive than Bill Clinton. His hardball tactics and legendary gift for giving his word and reneging on his promises set-off a war with Congress that took us to impeachment and left a huge chasm of antagonism that still divides Republicans and Democrats on the Hill. If Democratic congressional leaders and potential presidential candidates like Mr. Daschle, Mr. Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and others allow Bill Clinton to set himself up as the Democratic Party's powerful "prince in exile" calling the shots for the party and dabbling in extracurricular Hill politics, cooperation isn't likely to replace congressional combat any time soon.

4. Reject extreme racial politics and class carfare. The response of Democrat leaders to the recent bombastic rhetoric, unproved charges, and extreme racial politics of some African-American leaders will also signal the seriousness of the Democrats' commitment to national healing after this toughest and tightest of presidential elections. Democratic leaders have a choice. They can water the seeds of bitterness and distrust already sown in the black community by the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world or take a more measured approach. Giving credibility to yet another "right-wing conspiracy," this time to disenfranchise black voters, helps neither this new president nor the African-Americans he will serve. Al Gore's campaign decision to use class warfare pitting old against young, the sick against the well, rich against poor and black against white was nothing more than a cynical political decision. With issues like Social Security, tax cuts, Medicare and education on the table this year, Democrats have the chance to reject the failed politics of division once and for all.

5. Ignore the Florida "recounts." At some point soon, we will all be subjected to another barrage of "Election 2000" when various media announce the results of their Florida "recounts," some which, no doubt, will "prove" that Mr. Gore won Florida. Soon, thereafter, the cries of illegitimate presidency will be heard and demands for Mr. Bush to step down won't be far behind. This will test the strength of our nation and the character of leaders of both parties. For Democrats, this will be, perhaps, the most important opportunity for them to help heal the country by rejecting any claims that this presidency is not a legitimate one.

On opening day, Dick Gephardt pledged to Speaker Denny Hastert to meet him "half-way." Taking these five steps will likely get him there.

Richard Bond is the former chairman of the Republican Party.


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