- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2008

Last week I wrote in this column that Congress’s seemingly inexorable race to the bottom of the partisan polarization pit was braked by some institutional and political limits. While constant inter-party battles are now the norm in the modern House and Senate, recent evidence — such as several legislative bargains struck at the end of last year — suggest lawmakers get the message that unbridled partisanship could lead to electoral disaster. Pulling back a little on the reins of party bickering might be in order to ensure electoral survival.

The outbreak of bipartisan cooperation on the economic stimulus package is another example of congressional leaders stepping back from the edge of bottomless political warfare. But both the Democrats and Republicans in Congress walk a tightrope when it comes to the politics of legislative cooperation. And if there is a bipartisan agreement on a stimulus package, it more likely will represent a temporary cessation of hostilities than some permanent outbreak of bipartisan peace.

From the congressional Democrats’ perspective, 2008 might be the year of new legislative realism. In 2007, despite optimistic plans to enact their agenda, the new majority encountered two major institutional speed bumps — vetoes and filibusters — on its journey to change the direction of public policy in Washington. Lack of substantive progress on a host of issues and continued bickering with Republicans led congressional approval numbers to sink to one of their lowest points in history.

So, near the end of last year, Democrats decided they could no longer pretend they controlled Congress with veto-proof or filibuster-proof majorities. Something had to change; and it did. Right out of the chute in 2008, Democrats approached the politics of stimulus with a different tactic. Instead of beginning with a highly partisan, unworkable package, they engaged President Bush and congressional Republicans. This was no “Six for ‘06,” take it or leave it, political messaging strategy. Democrats want to make laws, so they left their partisan six-shooters at the door and sat down at the table to negotiate.

The White House, no doubt, welcomes this new attitude of conciliation. And why not? After enacting tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that helped fuel strong economic growth for the past several years, leaving office in the midst of a recession is the last thing the administration desires. Mr. Bush wants his legacy to include strong economic performance, not a strike out during his last year in office.

But politically, both congressional parties now wade into some uncharted waters. Keep in mind that prior to January 2007 Democrats labored as the minority party in the House with a Republican president for six years. Last year, serving in the majority with an opposition president for the first time in over half a decade presented a major learning curve. Head-butting had its place — rallying the base and showing movement in a different direction. But it produced few substantive accomplishments and quickly undercut the Democrats’ honeymoon of popularity with voters.

This January, the congressional majority has unveiled Democrats 2.0. They need to show they can govern, not just throw political darts at the Republicans through investigations and rhetorical invective. Sure, the MoveOn.org wing of the party would rather lose than negotiate with the White House. But if Democrats are smart, they will recognize that following those liberal Sherpas will only lead back to the political wilderness.

Congressional Republicans face their own set of challenges. Some argue that working with the majority party and producing legislative accomplishments only reminds voters why they elected a Democratic Congress, making it near impossible for Republicans to recapture Congress. “Hey, it works,” voters will collectively conclude. So, why make a change? Voters’ political calculus, however, is more complicated — more like three-dimensional chess than simple checkers. For example, Republicans need to rebuild trust among independent voters as well as maintain strong support among their core constituencies. It’s unclear that uncalibrated opposition on every issue can solve that intricate equation.

So, a bipartisan agreement on the stimulus package provides a short-term political boost to all sides — Democrats show they can govern and Republicans can say they are about more than obstruction. But November is a long way off, and this potential agreement is only one hand in a much longer game. Both sides walk a tightrope between energizing their base voters and compromising for results on a host of issues.

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