- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

Several former members of Congress say that Washington’s political climate has become so hostile and poisonous over the past decade that it is undermining the government’s ability to deal with major problems facing the country.

Republicans and Democrats, they say that the level of political dialogue is the worst they have seen in many years, driven in large part by Democratic officials frustrated by a decade of political losses and the incendiary charges made by both parties to get their message heard above the din.

If the rhetoric doesn’t cool, they say, voters will retaliate. “Democrats and Republicans better be aware of the fact that there is a limit to the frustration of voters in this country,” says Leon Panetta, a former Democratic representative who was White House chief of staff under President Clinton.

“I think people are being less prudent about what they say and how and where they say it,” says Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire who chairs the bipartisan Concord Coalition.

“There is a lack of trust and a lack of collegiality between people. I saw it on occasion when I was in the Senate, but nothing like it is now,” he says.

Timothy Roemer, the former Democratic congressman from Indiana who served on the September 11 commission and now heads the Center for National Policy, agrees. “There is not only a poisonous partisan attitude in Washington, but it seems to be paralyzing Congress from acting on some of the most important national security, economic and energy-related issues facing Americans,” he says. “It is more divisive than I have seen in my 20 years in Washington.”

Washington has been rocked in recent weeks by the sharpest attack rhetoric since the 2004 elections. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean charged that most Republicans are “white Christians” — he didn’t intend it as a compliment — who “look alike” and have “never done an honest day’s work.” The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, compared the treatment of al Qaeda prisoners by U.S. military interrogators to interrogators in Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet gulags and the death marches of Pol Pot in Cambodia.

Last week, White House adviser Karl Rove attacked Mr. Durbin for his remarks and accused Democrats of wanting “to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers” in the wake of September 11 as President Bush prepared for war.

“There has been a steady deterioration in the level of discourse and the standards of politeness that are used in discussion. The participants don’t seem to care what their opponents think of them as politicians and individuals,” says Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and now president of the Urban Institute.

“Part of it quite frankly is attributable to the media. To glean the attention of the media, you have to shout louder and have more extreme views,” he said.

Mr. Panetta blames the intensity of political campaigns. “Political consultants on both sides say that the only way to get your sound bite noticed is to make even more outlandish attacks on one another because they know that’s what grabs headlines,” he says.

Mr. Rudman says the current atmosphere “comes out of the enormously partisan battles that have bruised the Senate over the last six to eight years, including Clinton’s impeachment. That left a lot of bitterness. The whole atmosphere has changed. You walk on to the Senate floor and in many ways it’s like walking into a fire pit, literally.”

Democratic losses in the last half-dozen elections “is one of the factors” that has turned the battles in the Senate into trench warfare, Mr. Rudman says.

“There’s no question the Democrats in the House and Senate are very frustrated that they haven’t been able to make a lot of progress electorally, and I think that adds to the level of anger.”

Mr. Reischauer cites “the gotcha game.”

“This has become a town where everybody plays gotcha,” he says. “It takes two sides really to create the environment that we are in right now. Undoubtedly there is some deep frustration among Democrats, but there has also been an attitude in some Republican circles that bipartisanship isn’t required. But by and large, the Democrats, when they were the majority in the House, treated Republicans quite poorly.”

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