In his syndicated column Monday, “Confirmation Politics Demeans Senate,” Bob Novak took the Senate Democrats to task for their partisan decision to oppose the President’s nomination of Albert Gonzalez as attorney general. There were of course plenty of reasons given by the 35 of 41 Democrats who voted against Gonzalez, but Novak’s point was telling as he focused on the vote of Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who “had worked so amiably on federal judgeships in his state with Alberto Gonzales as White House counsel that the senator effusively endorsed his nomination as attorney general. Now, weeks later, Schumer was not only criticizing Gonzales but opposing his confirmation.”
In describing this as “confirmation, politics, the most noxious form of partisanship,” Novak recalled: When I first covered the Senate 45 years ago, confirmation battles were rare. It was considered a stain on the Senate in 1959 when President Dwight Eisenhower’s nominee for secretary of commerce was rejected because of one powerful Democratic senator’s personal animus. Today, nothing is personal. Bush’s 2001 nominees were attacked because of their opinions and his 2005 nominees because of administration policies. The decline of the Senate continues.”
This is also my recollection of what life was like in the Senate when I got to Washington in 1965 as a reporter for the old Dow Jones weekly, the National Observer. There was plenty of partisanship back then, but it was of the kind you find in a relatively happy marriage, with husband and wife expressing different views on issues that bear on family decisions and working things out. The Chinese have a way of connecting family units and national politics with the terms “yin and yang,” two opposite forces that achieve perfect harmony when they are in perfect balance. “Yin” is the feminine force, dark, negative and passive. “Yang” is the masculine force, light, positive and active.
It was this concept that led me a dozen years ago to dub the Democratic Party the “Mommy Party” and the G.O.P. the “Daddy Party.” In the family unit, the wife and mother is cautious, primarily concerned with hearth and home. The husband and father, primarily concerned with wider issues of security and the responsibility of bringing home the bacon, is the risk-taker. In our two-party system, the Democratic “Mommy” Party is likewise dedicated to welfare closest to home and the Republican Party presses hard on issues of economic growth and national security. Government does seem to work better when the partisanship is limited to an expression of the different points of view while common ground is being worked out to a harmonious conclusion. It appeared that way to Bob Novak when he covered Capitol Hill in 1959, and to me in the late 1960s.
In our current circumstance, the “marriage” seems less a happy one than one of convenience, and it is certainly not due to the Democrats alone causing the disharmony. Republicans seemed more accommodative in those earlier years, but that was because they had been the minority party for so long they were used to playing second fiddle and accepting Democratic dominance. As a liberal Democrat who gradually evolved into a “progressive Republican,” I came to see both sides of issues more easily than those who had spent all their political lives as partisans. I can recall meeting a Buffalo G.O.P. congressman named Jack Kemp in 1976 while I was an editor at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, having recently discovered what I came to call “supply-side economics,” a revival of classical theory. Kemp quickly became an avid student and realized the political power of the ideas, especially the recognition that monetary inflation had pushed the work force into tax brackets never meant for them – and that lowering the rates would be good for the economy.
In early 1977, just days after Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, I recall a dinner I had with Kemp at the Palm Restaurant at 19th and M in D.C., a political hangout that is still there serving great steaks. We sat alone in a booth at the left rear of the main room, away from the hubbub, and I recall Jack saying he thought the tax-cutting idea was so good that maybe we should play it down, or the Democratic government would swipe it and stay in power for another three decades. He could even use it to run for President in 1980, as I’d already told him I thought he was presidential timber.
Jack, who had been a champion quarterback with the Buffalo Bills before he retired and won his congressional seat, was a competitor. But I pointed out that politics wasn’t like a football game. The objective, I said, was not to “beat the Democrats,” but to get the best ideas into play as soon as possible for the benefit of the national family. I remember explicitly saying: “The best thing that could possibly happen would be if President Carter woke up tomorrow morning and said to himself, ‘By gosh, the legislation that Jack Kemp is sponsoring to cut income tax rates the way President Kennedy did sounds good to me. I’m going to get to work on it right now and see if Congress will go along with it.” Then I added, “If that happened, Jack, you could then retire from politics, your job complete, and go back and do what retired quarterbacks usually do, and open a Chevy dealership in Buffalo.”
It didn’t take Kemp a month or two to get the idea. The next day he was walking across the aisle, talking to Democrats in hopes of getting them to co-sponsor his legislation. Of course he couldn’t sway the Carter administration, which was trying to get the economy going with easy money at the Fed. But he gave it his best shot, made a name for himself, and got the attention of the retired Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who decided to run on Jack’s tax ideas in 1980. The Democrats could have swiped the idea and stayed in power for another two decades, we might imagine, but they didn’t, although the Governor of Arkansas did with the White House in 1992 with the promise of a middle-class tax cut, running against the incumbent President who had broken his 1988 “read my lips” promise to stick with Reaganomics.
So what happened to bipartisan “yin and yang”? By my figuring, when Democrats saw power slipping away from them and their agenda, they did consciously decide to go for “confirmation politics,” so they could at least control the judicial branch of the government. For their part, Republicans were not in power for very long after finally winning both houses of Congress in 1994 than they decided they might as well roll back the clock on the New Deal as long as they had the votes. A Kemp ally from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, had maneuvered the successful takeover of the House in 1994 and became Speaker. But there was little interest from Newt and the Republican right-wingers in yin-and-yang harmony with the Loyal Opposition. Gingrich overplayed his partisan hand and wound up losing his power and quitting the Congress. He had help from other Republican leaders bent on their partisan mission, several of them from Texas. I remember a speech I watched on C-SPAN in early 1993 delivered by Sen. Phil Gramm [R TX] to a partisan Republican audience in Washington. He explicitly noted that the economy could stand another dose of Reagan tax cuts, but that he would hold back in hopes of regaining the White House in 1996 and then taking credit for tax cuts!! And of course, there was “The Hammer,” all yang and no yin Tom de Lay.
There are still pockets of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. It really is set up to avoid complete divorce, but the partisanship does seem to get more noxious all the time. It’s too bad. The national family does have quite a few major problems to work out.