Tuesday, May 17, 2005

It was the handshake seen around the political world: On June 11, 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton agreed to a bipartisan commission that would reform political campaigns and rein in congressional campaign costs.

Nothing came of the commission because neither side could agree on who should be on it, but the sight of two political rivals shaking hands made many people feel good. And feelings are more important to some than results.

Proving there can be second acts in politics, Mr. Gingrich and a Clinton have shaken hands again. But this time it’s Newt Gingrich and Sen. Hillary Clinton, New York Democrat. This time the issue is not campaign finance reform, but health care. When he was speaker of the House, Mr. Gingrich denounced what he and others derisively called “Hillarycare” as “centralized bureaucratic socialism.”

Cynics are already saying the entente between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gingrich is about positioning — she to seem more moderate; he to appear less abrasive and “extreme.” Both are believed to be in training for a presidential run in 2008.

Regardless of any personal motives that may be in back of this odd coupling, who doubts the U.S. health-care system needs fixing, or that more people could use health insurance and that costs remain too high?

Have our politics become so bitter no one on the “other side” can ever be said to have a good idea worthy of consideration? Do all on one side think they will be tainted if they talk to, embrace or shake the hand of someone on the other side?

When Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, hugged Sen. Clinton after they had successfully worked together on a project of mutual interest, political associates of Texas Gov. Rick Perry used the picture of their embrace to suggest Mrs. Hutchison may not be as conservative as some people had thought. Mrs. Hutchison is contemplating running for governor and Mr. Perry presumably wants to keep the job.

This is the kind of politics that has deepened cynicism and put off voters in recent years. Too many politicians and activists prefer having an issue to resolving a problem. Agreements, solutions, congeniality, friendship and camaraderie are considered less important — if important at all — than winning elections, self-preservation, personal benefits, financial gain and eliminating one’s “enemies.” Problem-solving is often the first casualty of a political scorched-earth strategy.

Suppose, though, these two are serious about actually accompolshing something for the benefit of many Americans.

Mr. Gingrich, who has been studying and proposing solutions to America’s health care predicament for several years, and Mrs. Clinton, who has been pretty good, according to Mr. Gingrich, on military and war-related issues, may not be the political equivalent of Rogers and Hammerstein, but if agreement can be reached and problems solved, why should anyone begrudge them making beautiful music together?

Particularly in Mrs. Clinton’s case, there are those who believe her to be evil incarnate. Such people will never trust her motives because they think she wants to be president and rule the world. Democrats held similarly hostile views about Mr. Gingrich when he was speaker.

Do people want to suggest Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich do not love their country? Do they think policy differences (or in this case policy agreements) mean policies are litmus tests for judging the depth of patriotism and loyalty? If they do, they should say so. Many more people seem to prefer that issues be resolved to the benefit of most than mired in political one-upmanship.

Ronald Reagan used to have a sign on his desk that said, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Let’s see what Mr. Gingrich and Mrs. Clinton can do and judge them on the results, if any, not on their motives and personalities.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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