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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Bearing Witness to a Political System Addicted to Polarization and Strife

Each side now routinely portrays the other not only as wrongheaded but as immoral or corrupt.

November 27, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Partisan strife was so subdued during the presidency of James Monroe in the early 19th century that historians refer to his tenure as the "era of good feelings."

When naming our own time, some future historian is likely to label it the "era of bad feelings." Or maybe the "era of poisoned feelings." Or possibly just the "era of partisan homicidal mania."

The feral battle surrounding Florida's long vote count perfectly symbolizes a political system addicted to polarization and strife, even in a period of social peace and prosperity. It is the ideal bookend to an election that effectively began with the hyper-partisanship of President Clinton's impeachment.

More fundamentally, it stands as a new peak in the pattern of total war between the parties that has characterized this modern era of bad feelings. It's probably no coincidence that the first seriously disputed presidential election since 1876 follows the first impeachment since 1868; each suggests that both sides no longer are accepting the conventional boundaries that limited their conflicts before.

The parties didn't get here overnight. For more than a decade, each side has carried the political system closer to this state of total war by systematically attacking the ethics of the others' leaders. Each side picks a different starting date for this offensive: Republicans focus on the Democratic assault against Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork in the mid-1980s, Democrats on Newt Gingrich's subsequent drive to topple House Speaker Jim Wright.

But whoever threw the first stone is no more relevant in Washington than on the West Bank; both parties now are locked in a cycle of charge and countercharge that proceeds almost obliviously to the conditions in the country. Each side now routinely portrays the other not only as wrongheaded but as immoral or corrupt. That corrosive dynamic helps explain how, by the end of last week, conservatives were bellowing about an Al Gore "coup" and liberals were labeling the Republican mini-riot in Miami-Dade County as an attempted "putsch."

In a way, the fury of November is ironic. In the weeks before election day, the contest between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore had stirred so little passion that the only way to generate an argument over it in a bar would be to suggest switching the TV from ESPN to the presidential debates. Polls show most of the country still is taking the standoff in stride, waiting for the system to produce a Florida winner and our next president.

But, for the activists on each side, this has become a sort of holy war. That's especially true among Republicans.

For conservatives, the long count has become the rematch over impeachment--the chance to right the wrong committed when the Senate failed to remove Clinton from office. Conservatives expected this election to consecrate the country's rejection of Clinton; instead it gave Gore an infuriating plurality of the popular vote. Now, conservatives see Gore's fight for Florida as a continuation of all the legal hairsplitting and evasion that they believe defined the Clinton era. "Eight years of lies is enough," declared the sign one woman held last week outside the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee.

On the left, the intensity hasn't been as great, because Bush doesn't inspire as much antipathy among liberals as Clinton and Gore do among conservatives. But, as in all arms races, the escalation on the Republican side--the vituperative personal attacks on Gore, the angry denunciations of the Florida Supreme Court--is encouraging the inevitable response from Democrats. "The whiff of fascism is in the air," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) breathlessly declared last weekend in Miami.

All of this will make it that much harder for the winner, whenever he's named, to pick up the pieces. For Gore, the task will be nothing less than Herculean: The Republican rage at him and Clinton on display during the last three weeks suggests he will need an extraordinary effort to build even minimally civil relationships with the GOP Congress.

Yet, since election day, Bush too has seriously hurt his chances of reaching across party lines. One of Bush's signature campaign promises was his pledge to "change the tone in Washington." Throughout the campaign, he promised to work with Democrats and lower the partisan rhetoric: "We won't always agree," he declared in late October, "but . . . I will do everything I can to restore civility to our national politics."

But in the last three weeks, Bush has winked at obstreperous Republican protesters in Florida, allowed James A. Baker III to invite the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature to overturn the vote count if it favors Gore, and himself challenged the legitimacy of the state Supreme Court decision.

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