By Richard S. Dunham
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and his Senate counterpart, Tom Daschle, looked solemn and sad May 2 as they blasted President Bush for failing to consult with the Democratic leadership on the budget and tax-cut deal reached a day earlier. "These are not bipartisan actions," said Gephardt. "We can stop the Senate train from moving," warned Daschle.
With all due respect to the honorable gentlemen, it's time for them to get a life. For months, Democratic Hill leaders have been blasting the White House for failing to embrace "true bipartisanship." They've been demanding -- nay, begging -- the new President to invite them over to la casa blanca and "meet us halfway" on every issue.
The Daschle-Gephardt mantra sounded good the first time they uttered it, back in December, after the Supreme Court closed the door on Al Gore's Presidential campaign. But after the 14-zillionth repetition, the act has grown stale. Out of frustration, the Democratic leaders have veered off into personal attacks and shrill partisanship. It looks like an ugly spectacle. If anybody is watching.
Here's the reality of Washington: Republicans control the White House, have a hammerlock on the House of Representatives, and control a tenuous center-right majority in the evenly divided Senate. To pass his priorities, Bush needs only a few Democratic votes on each issue. Thus far, he has been able to round up the votes every time he has tried -- save a single setback on abortion.
White House political guru Karl Rove has devised an effective "floating coalition" strategy. On tax cuts and budget matters, Bush has reached out to centrist Dems such as Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bob Torricelli of New Jersey, and John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
On Social Security, he has enlisted former Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a maverick liberal, to head a commission that will recommend partial privatization of the retirement system.
On education, he has teamed up with no less a Democratic partisan -- and liberal icon -- than Ted Kennedy. If the Massachusetts senator is George W. Bush's partner in policy, it rings awfully hollow when Democratic leaders whine that Bush is being hyperpartisan.
The White House is pressing its advantage. "The President is going to continue to work with members of Congress, of both parties, to assemble governing, bipartisan coalitions," says Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "On some issues, there are going to be many votes. On some issues, the votes may be narrower."
The American people seem to like what they're seeing. In an Apr. 22-24 Battleground 2002 poll, 65% of voters said Bush "has made significant efforts to reach out to members of the Democratic Party." Only 28% disagreed. And a majority gives Bush credit for improving the tone of politics in Washington today.
Democratic leaders have a big problem. To be players in the political process, and not just Monday-morning quarterbacks, they have to get on the playing field. That means being willing to cut deals with Bush. That means giving Bush most of what he wants, not just "splitting the difference."
On an issue like the patients' bill of rights, it means negotiating with the President over caps on legal judgments against unresponsive HMOs. On an issue like Medicare reform, it means talking turkey about serious systemic reforms, not just adding another prescription-drug entitlement to a fiscally shaky program.
Are Daschle and Gephardt willing to do that? Unlikely. To position their party for the 2002 congressional elections -- and the 2004 White House showdown -- they want to highlight the differences between Democrats and Republicans on big issues. By cutting deals with Bush, the Democrats would only make the President and GOP Hill leaders look more effective.
What to do? The Democratic leaders will likely continue to do what they can to frustrate the Bush agenda and to paint the President as an extremist on judicial nominations, abortion, and the environment. The strategy may work. But Tom and Dick should end the charade that Democrats care a whit about bipartisanship.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online
Edited by Beth Belton