- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

In the days following this year's midterm elections, the spin doctors worked overtime performing political LASIK surgery on the body politic, giving everyone the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. Democrats lacked a message, said the pundits; they failed to confront President Bush; their agenda was bankrupt.
But who needs Cassandra after the disaster occurs?
One Democrat, however, sounded warnings to his party well before the Republican victory earlier this month: Sen. Zell Miller. A popular former governor, his advice draws rave reviews from the Wal-Mart shoppers near his home in Young Harris, Ga, to the corporate suites on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. Yet, he faces daunting challenges convincing his colleagues in the Senate Democratic Caucus. His odyssey in recent months is a parable about the changing nature of political parties in Washington.
Mr. Miller's experience points out the perils of unbridled opposition and the need to find common ground where possible. He warned his party about the dangers of opposing the president's tax-cut bill. In the spring of 2001, he said, "My Democratic friends need to be reminded and return to those days of yesteryear when they supported cutting tax rates and did not engage in this endless class warfare that they have today become a Johnny-one-note on."
Cautioning Democrats about overzealous opposition to the president's nominees, Mr. Miller warned, "It seems sometimes as if there were this never-ending, back-and-forth, partisan ping-pong game of revenge going on all the time. For the good of both political parties and especially for the good of this country it needs to end."
Mr. Miller also displayed remarkable prescience about the pitfalls of fighting the president on homeland security: "We are not doing our party any good by feeding the perception that Democrats are undermining the president of the United States on the war on terrorism."
Most Democrats in the Senate, however, disagree with Mr. Miller's advice because of two fundamental, but related, changes in Congress over the last half-century one ideological, the other tactical.
According to political scientists Jon Bond and Richard Fleisher, in their recent book, "Polarized Politics," the two parties in Congress have become increasingly distinct and ideologically homogeneous over the past several decades, making it increasingly difficult for legislators to find common ground. Examining congressional voting patterns since the 1960s, they conclude, "Partisanship was much higher in the Congresses of the 1990s than any time in the last half-century." So, instead of the way things were during the 1950s, when Democrats ranged from conservatives like Richard Russell to the liberal Hubert Humphrey, today's Senate party caucuses are far less ideologically diverse. Polarization makes it more difficult to build bipartisan, centrist coalitions and achieve compromise and common ground.
The second change is more subtle and tactical, but even more poisonous. In the past decade, congressional parties increasingly operate at one speed call it "slow opposition." As documented by Mr. Miller's quotes above, Democrats are against this, against that, opposing the president here and cannot support him there.
Again, Zell Miller would have found a different Senate in the 1950s. As Robert A. Caro points out in his book, "Master of the Senate," when Lyndon Johnson was elected minority leader in January 1953, facing the first Republican president in more than 20 years, LBJ asserted in his acceptance speech, "I have never agreed … merely to obstruct… [Democrats should support] a program geared not just to opposing the majority but to serving America."
Even House Speaker Sam Rayburn, according to Mr. Caro, said that he didn't want to fight the president simply to oppose. "Any jackass can kick a barn down," Rayburn said. "But it takes a good carpenter to build one."
This is not a call for the political equivalent of "why can't we all just get along." But it does appear that during debate in Washington, some acknowledgment or effort to achieve common ground would help balance the current political climate. Even in his post-election, end of session wrap-up, Sen. Thomas A. Daschle last Wednesday met with reporters and lambasted the Republicans for "obstructing" the Democrats' agenda. He could have made all the same points, but also acknowledged this Congress found enough common ground to pass legislation on important issues like education reform, tax relief, accounting standards, terrorism insurance, homeland security and defense spending.
January 2003 parallels January 1953 Democrats in the minority in the Senate with a wartime Republican president. And Mr. Miller is trying to instill a new "zen" in the political strategy of his colleagues. Democrats should listen to his advice and follow how other giants of the Senate, like Richard Russell and Lyndon Johnson, managed as the loyal opposition.


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