Partisanship is hardly new to American politics. The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists were at one another's throats even before the Constitution was signed, while the Democrats and Whigs fought bitterly throughout the early 1800s. But rarely in the two centuries-plus of this nation's history has the level of acrimony between political parties reached such poisonous heights as it has today. Not only does it imperil critical legislation, from health-care reform to the crime bill, but it also undermines the public's confidence in the ability of any party to actually govern. This is dangerous indeed.
"Who started it?" isn't really the point, though Democrats who complain about GOP intransigence today should recall their own ideological attack on Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork during the Reagan Administration. He was eminently qualified but his penchant for the politically incorrect ignited a vicious, partisan battle in the Senate.
Republicans have responded in kind by savaging such Clinton nominees as Lani Guinier and by going after the President himself. The allegation that Clinton was involved in any criminality in his Whitewater investment has been thin gruel from the beginning, yet Republicans hounded him until an independent counsel was appointed. Now the role of the independent counsel has itself become a partisan football.
This rise in partisanship has, of course, much to do with the impending November elections. Take crime prevention, desperately desired by the public. The anticrime bill is in the obvious interest of incumbents of both parties, and the compromises needed to pass the bill should have been made easily. But a political firefight stalled the measure, and only last-minute damage control gives it a chance of passage.
But more fundamental forces may also be at work. The end of the cold war has taken away an enemy that often acted to force political groups to compromise their selfish interests for the good of the country. Now, the pressures of patriotism are no foil to the politics of self-interest.
Debate is fine. But the partisan excesses must end. There is no way to govern this complex nation effectively until civility returns to Washington.