If you watched the President’s speech last night, you must have noticed it was very well received on the Republican side of the aisle. Hardly a minute went by without applause, often standing applause, as the President went through his interminable list of good things he wants for the American people. There will be laws giving workers time off to attend daytime PTA meetings and to attend medical checkups for their children, who will be wearing government-mandated school uniforms, and will be plugged into the Internet, whether in school or in a hospital bed, and everyone will be guaranteed two years in the college of their choice, which will end greenhouse gases and global warming and Save the World! It reminded me of a marvelous column by Maureen Dowd of The New York Times last year, headlined “President Pothole,” in which Bill tells Hillary, “Honey, we shrunk the Presidency.” Why were the Republicans cheering? Because there was absolutely nothing threatening in the itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny ideas the President has for managing our lives from cradle to grave, with the Republicans in control of Congress. That being the case, why not show the American people that the 105th Congress is not going to be like the mean-spirited 104th Congress? As long as Republicans understand that the Democratic Party is the “Mommy party” and its President wants all of us to eat our peas and take an umbrella when it looks like rain, there is no harm in saying, “Sure, mom.”
That’s exactly how I felt in sitting through the 62 minutes, which I thought was just fine. There may be just as much apprehension, even hatreds, on both sides of the aisle. But as long as the party leaders are insisting that the children behave, we have the appearance of the kind of harmony and bipartisanship it will take to get things done that need to be done. The GOP’s Beltway journalists, such as George Will and Bill Kristol, express alarm at the idea of “bipartisanship” and insist it is the responsibility of the two parties to go to work with sidearms and to shoot it out until only one is left standing. This misses the true meaning of bipartisanship, which is in the honesty of a relationship. President Clinton last night was inviting the “Daddy party” to work with him and his party in forging a relationship of honest discussion, for the good of the national family. This does not mean that “Mommy and Daddy” must remain sweetly embraced while discussing a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Any idea that alters the fundamental marriage contract -- the U.S. Constitution -- deserves vigorous, even heated exchange of views. True bipartisanship means that neither Mommy nor Daddy will ever find themselves at the end of a discussion saying: “I find myself agreeing with him/her, but will not give him/her the satisfaction of knowing I do.” In the extreme, one party will agree to quietly block an initiative of the other party which it agrees would benefit the nation, for the sole reason of weakening its opposition in the eyes of the voters.
That kind of partisanship in government was exemplified by a Texas Republican four years ago telling a conservative audience in Washington, DC, that the country really needed a tax cut. But if it got one from Clinton, it would re-elect him, so let’s hold one back until we get the White House back in 1996. That’s what Rep. Charlie Rangel calls “mean-spirited,” which means using your influence to prevent the other party from getting credit for something you know would be good for the country. Of course, it was this kind of mean-spiritedness that led Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, when the Democrats were in control, into blocking the cut in the capital gains tax for which President Bush had campaigned in 1988. There were clear signs to Republicans that Mitchell preferred economic weakness to Bush’s re-election. The mean-spiritedness did not start there, of course. It went back further and deeper into the histories of the two parties, each new Congress beginning with scores having to be settled from the last Congress. This kind of poisonous combat was not evident when I first began observing the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth process close up in 1965. It began appearing in the Nixon years, almost certainly related to the colossal power struggles over Vietnam, when no holds were barred.
Partisanship is of course essential in arriving at the correct balance between the individual and the community. We can make fun of President Clinton and his laundry list of goodies, but neither party holds the monopoly on ideas that are best forgotten. Coincidentally, the highest priority of this Republican Congress is the Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. The idea has been around since 1976, when it was first championed by Governor Reagan of California. At the time, it seemed the best idea for throwing a rope over the irresponsible spending impulses of the American people -- who kept electing tax-and-spend Democrats to control Congress. A whole raft of GOP ideas surfaced on the misguided assumption that the electorate was the source of the nation’s problems. A long list of constitutional amendment ideas were meant to skirt the Democratic Congress, including the BBA, school prayer, abortion, term limits, etc. The line-item veto would increase the power of Republican Presidents over profligate Democratic Congresses. Republican Presidents would appoint conservative Supreme Court Justices to invalidate the socialist manifestations of liberal Democratic lawmakers. And so on. In the first paragraph of my 1978 book, The Way the World Works, I wrote: “Republicans often argue that the Republic will not survive as long as voters remain short-sighted and self-indulgent instead of being fiscally responsible.”
In fact, once the Cold War ended and the problems that had accumulated on the nation’s back burner were brought front and center, the electorate lost no time in giving Republicans control of Congress. The only real mistake the GOP made in the 104th Congress was in acting as if it only had two years to straighten out the problems of a half-century, and that the Mommy Party need not be consulted. Now that Newt Gingrich has been reprimanded for his excesses, there is a genuine opportunity for the leaders to behave as if old scores had been settled and the two parties can operate on the Golden Rule, instead of a tooth-for-a-tooth. If you need any encouragement, read this morning’s “Tax Report” on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, and you will find nothing but hopeful signs: “Bipartisan Support Grows for changing the Alternative Minimum Tax,” and “Opposition Hardens to a Clinton Plan to raise taxes on many investors.” In the lead editorial, “Departure Tax,” we find growing bipartisan support for sharply cutting or eliminating the federal estate tax. There still remains the possibility that sufficient harmony exists to enact fundamental tax reform in this second and last Clinton term. We look forward to House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer’s appearance Sunday on Face the Nation, where these issues will be discussed.
Wall Street seems to be having trouble figuring all this out today, skittishly running up and down in fits and starts. There is nothing we see on the horizon that is cause for much concern, though. The Federal Reserve put another meeting behind it today with no hike in interest rates. The bond bears are already trying to promote a hike in March, but that won’t happen. The BBA will cause some temporary partisan divisions, but of the healthy kind, and they soon will be behind us. Bill Clinton and Trent Lott, Mommy and Daddy, are on friendly terms. Even the groundhog has forecast an early spring. The state of the union ain’t bad at all.