From David Broder comes word that a gaggle of political old timers has collected with the express purpose of agitating for bipartisanship and exploring the possibility of supporting a third-party presidential candidacy in 2008. This who's who of has-beens is evidently led by David Boren, an undistinguished oil state senator who, upon retirement, was handed the presidency of an undistinguished state university. On January 7, a team of 1980s all stars will make their way to Boren's new playground, the University of Oklahoma, where they will reminisce about the era of good feelings that was the Reagan years and throw what little remaining weight they have into the political mix.
That a conference on political unity will take place in a state that has recently elected such unhinged extremists as James Inhofe and Tom Coburn to the U.S. Senate is only the beginning of our wonderment. The cast of characters evokes still more head-scratching. Evidently, we will soon be receiving lectures on bridging our national divides from Sam Nunn, the former Georgia senator who angrily took down Bill Clinton over gays in the military; John Danforth, the Missourian who shepherded the bitterly ideological Clarence Thomas through the Supreme Court nomination process; Christie Todd Whitman, who, as George W. Bush's EPA chief, allowed herself to be overruled and humiliated by the anti-environmental wackos in the Vice President's office; and Bill Brock, Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Carter years, a time in which the GOP waged all-out, and not remotely bipartisan, war against our 39th president. Gary Hart will also apparently make the trip to the Sooner State, hoping the world will forget that his original contribution to ideological moderation was his service as George McGovern's campaign manager in 1972 (and, yeah, maybe he wants us to forget a couple of other things, too).
The subtext of next week's football school summit meeting is the notion that bipartisanship is something that must be recaptured, something that we lost somewhere along the sixty-year road from Berlin to Baghdad, from civil rights to gay marriage. "Today," write Boren and Nunn, summoning their full powers of cliché, "we are a house divided." It is difficult to go wrong borrowing from Jesus and Lincoln, but one may certainly wonder about the time reference added by the two former senators. If our house is divided today, exactly when was it united?
Surely, there was nothing bipartisan about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used Democratic supermajorities in Congress to overwhelm fierce GOP opposition to his New Deal policies. Harry Truman was an instinctive partisan gut fighter, and the Republicans who opposed him were not exactly gentle in their condemnation of his policies both at home and abroad, particularly his prosecution of the Korean War. Eisenhower's somnolent presidency can only be considered non-conflictual if one ignores the nascent civil rights movement, the National Guard in Little Rock, and the vicious opposition and endless filibusters that characterized early congressional efforts to provide equal opportunity for African Americans. Oh yeah, and Joe McCarthy. Then, of course, came the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate, and so forth. If there was a Golden Age of Bipartisanship, it probably occurred for about a month after the attacks on September 11, 2001, and ended just around the time that the Bush Administration decided to use terrorism to its own political advantage.
(I recognize, of course, that many of the political disputes of the 1950s and 1960s did involve bipartisan coalitions of Southern Democrats and Conservative Republicans against social liberals from both parties. This is obviously an accident of history, a time when anger at the party of Abraham Lincoln had not yet subsided in the South, leading to the election of Democratic members of Congress who were well to the right of the national party. There may have been a semblance of bipartisanship, but it came at the expense of excruciating national rancor. Presumably, even Boren and Nunn understand that any seeker of brotherhood and national unity would not choose to set his or her watch back to 1958.)
The David Broders of the world, who inevitably fall victim to the siren song of political Kumbaya, do perhaps have one point. The level of distrust between the parties is greater today than at any time in recent memory. Next time C-Span shows the Nixon and Clinton impeachment hearings, be sure to compare and contrast. Both had their moments of partisan grandstanding, but the Nixon hearings were characterized by serious-sounding people on both sides who were aware of and burdened by the gravity of their decision. In 1998, by contrast, neither Democrats nor Republicans acquitted themselves particularly well, and the most profound constitutional remedy available was treated as just another weapon in the soul-draining culture wars of the 90s. (Let's be clear, though: the Republicans chose to bring this circus to town, and thus bear the greatest responsibility for embarrassing the nation.)
Anyhow, it would be helpful if each side of the political debate would work to reject the notion that their opponents are driven by evil or venal motives. Aside from their obvious elephantine ambitions, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, John Edwards and Fred Thompson do care about their country and want to make it a better place. It would, of course, be easier to hold this position if we were not currently enduring a presidential administration that lied its way into war and brought unthinkable torture back into the mainstream. Nobody is obligated to give Dick Cheney the benefit of any doubt. Nevertheless, there are numerous grownups in the Republican Party, and it still makes sense to reach out to them. Not all compromise is capitulation.
Having said that, the group that will soon be arriving in Oklahoma is already starting on the wrong foot. The implicit threat of a third party candidacy, perhaps that of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, betrays a petulance and lack of seriousness on the part of these supposedly deep thinkers. Rebuilding bonds is difficult work, and it is not accomplished by taking one's ball and looking for a different game. Not only do third parties rarely succeed, they also permit presidents to be elected without majority public support, hardly a blueprint for bringing the country together.
Like all efforts of this sort, little progress will be made until we all address the elephant in the living room. The Bush administration has taken power-grabbing and merciless partisanship to places heretofore unimagined by constitutional scholars, let alone practicing politicos. Until all sides acknowledge this and agree to step back from the precipice of the unitary executive-cum-dictator, no healing, much less bipartisan unity, will be possible.