Democrats are in no-win situation

Today's column is all about bipartisanship. Democrats are being awfully good scouts about this business. I mean look at the circumstances. They have not just rallied uncritically around a president of the opposite party, but also have rallied around a president who got fewer votes than our own candidate and one who many of them believe actually stole the election. But really that whole issue is moot now, in light of Sept. 11. The terrorist attacks confirmed George W. Bush as president in a way that a misleading Supreme Court decision never could. It's not because of anything that he's done, but just because this dreadful problem has fallen on him, and because our lives suddenly depend on his leadership.

This is a no-win situation for Democrats. If terrorism goes away and the war is viewed as won, Bush will be the big hero. If terrorism continues and escalates, we are all in big trouble. "Putting partisanship aside" is naturally unbalanced: Criticism of George W. is put aside, but praise is not. Bush has handled this dilemma fairly well, so far. The enhancement in Bush's image is a present of the circumstances. Even Bush's critics, including myself, make a great effort to say good things about Bush now and hold back our opinionated urges to be nasty.

This is all unfair, but fitting. Bad luck for the Democrats is not one of the high-ranking consequences of the terrorist attack. Still, this unfairness makes the Democrats' behavior since Sept. 11 look particularly attractive. And it's easy to doubt whether Trent Lott and Dick Armey would be behaving as well as Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt have done if the circumstances were switched around.

It's also easy to see the bipartisan feelings are not equally shared. The New York Times displayed on the front-page the other day when Bush went up and gave Daschle and Gephardt each a hug. That's a nice photo op for the pres, but insufficient. The Democrats' support has been totally unrestricted and nothing requires Bush to do more for bipartisanship than his own need to be a statesman and a good guy. But as the predictable recipient of bipartisanship, he should be making a few more gestures of his own to match those of the opposition. I have a few tips for Bush and his party:

1. Put Dems in more high-status positions. Bipartisanship doesn't mean alliance government, but it should mean more than moving down Norm Mineta, who was serving as secretary of commerce for the Clinton administration, to the smaller job of secretary of transportation and perfunctory Democrat in the Bush Cabinet. Bush missed a terrific opportunity for bipartisanship when he didn't choose a Democrat, a certain man named Gore perhaps, to head the new Homeland Security group.

2. Don't blame Clinton. Given the Democrats' persistent restraint about criticizing Bush, the chorus of conservatives attempting to point the finger at Bill Clinton is unseemly. None of this is from the White House, but Bush could stop it with a few words or private phone calls.

3. Apologize. During the election campaign, Bush echoed the Republican conventional wisdom that there is a difference between pursuing narrow military objectives and chasing a folly called "nation-building." This distinction began as a way to explain why George Bush the elder was right to send American troops into Somalia but Bill Clinton was to blame when some of them were killed in an ambush. The "mission had changed," it was said.

The distinction was always partisan nonsense, and now Bush the younger is calling for something indistinguishable from nation-building in Afghanistan. If ever there was a military interference whose goals did not engage nation-building, Afghanistan would be it. Our goal in Somalia was to stop a famine that was caused by the political situation. In Afghanistan our goal is to flush out terrorist forces that are hosted, not controlled, by the government. We really don't care, to tell the truth, about conditions in Afghanistan. But even in this extreme case Bush has decided that strategic, diplomatic, and humanitarian considerations make nation-building a necessary part. So, now that the president is working at a policy he criticized, admitting his mistake and apologizing would be the bipartisan thing to do.

4. Compromise. True bipartisanship has to mean more than, "Let's you and I agree to do what I want." Don't try to present yourself as the non-partisan broker between Democrats and Republicans. Claiming the center is good partisan politics, but in the bipartisan game it's cheating. It's not bipartisan if it doesn't hurt, just a little bit. The Democrats are doing things in the spirit of bipartisanship that must hurt quite a bit. And they're being good sports about it. Can Bush and his Republicans do less? Have a great rest of the week!


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