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NEWS ANALYSIS

Bush's Call for Civil Tone Gets Rude Response

January 10, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — So much for changing the tone in Washington.

During the 2000 campaign, President-elect George W. Bush repeatedly promised to soothe the partisan hostilities that have raged across Washington during Bill Clinton's tumultuous two terms. But the sudden withdrawal Tuesday of Linda Chavez, his Labor secretary nominee, and the escalating conflict over two of his other Cabinet appointees show how difficult it will be to end the political warfare simply by changing the occupant of the Oval Office.

As Chavez's fall demonstrated, Washington's toxic climate is shaped by forces much deeper than the president's personality--key among them a cycle of attack and counterattack between the major parties that has made indiscretions, which once might have seemed minor, loom as disqualifying offenses.

"It has less to do with [who is] the president than the character of the American political system," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. "It is structural, in other words, not personal."

The stumble out of the gate has become a rite of passage for new presidents in this era of increased tension over appointments. Bush's father was bloodied when the Senate rejected his choice of John Tower as Defense secretary; Bill Clinton's first two attorney general prospects were forced to withdraw over charges of employing an illegal immigrant, similar to the issue that felled Chavez.

While uneasy Republicans immediately asked why Bush's team had not unearthed Chavez's problems themselves, her departure is unlikely to have any measurable long-term effect on Bush's policy agenda. Still, analysts said, it could embolden liberal groups taking aim at Bush's two other most conservative Cabinet choices: attorney general nominee John Ashcroft and Interior secretary designee Gale A. Norton.

Indeed, one stark lesson of these sharpening nomination struggles is that neither the president nor the Congress can entirely enforce a cease-fire in Washington, even if they want to do so.

Senate Democrats, after initially signaling deference, are increasing their resistance to Bush's most controversial choices largely in response to pressure from Democratic interest groups. That dynamic was underscored Tuesday when an alliance of civil rights, environmental and abortion rights groups launched a formal campaign against Ashcroft.

Meanwhile, despite Bush's call for a more civil tone, a coalition of conservative interest groups are preparing a fierce defense of Ashcroft and Norton that could include television ads against Democratic senators who decide to oppose them. "Both sides know the last election was just the beginning of the next election," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which has helped to organize the new coalition. "It's clear there has been no attempt to have any kind of getting along."

Which is not exactly what Bush was hoping would happen.

As a candidate, Bush portrayed himself as a "uniter, not a divider," and he pledged to restore bipartisan cooperation after the frequently incendiary conflict of the Clinton years. Though he did not absolve the Republican Congress for the atmosphere, Bush mostly blamed Clinton, who he said had run "the most relentlessly partisan administration in our nation's history." Bush promised to strike "a different tone" that restores "civility and respect to our national politics."

Washington's Negative Tone Predates Clinton

Some analysts said that Bush minimized the role of much deeper forces that predated Clinton's administration and are showing clear signs of outliving it.

"It would be incredibly naive to say that it was Bill Clinton who brought partisanship to Washington," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

At least four factors that contributed to Washington's partisan bitterness over the last generation are already apparent in the battles over Chavez, Ashcroft and Norton.

The first is the systematic use of ethical allegations as a tool of political warfare. Politicians have accused their opponents of scandal since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. But over the last 20 years, the two major parties have employed such accusations at a much greater rate than ever.

This cycle--what Chavez described Tuesday as "search and destroy" politics--traces back at least to attempts by Democrats to use the "sleaze factor" against President Reagan, charging that his administration was rife with corruption. Later in the 1980s, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) used an ethics investigation to topple then-House Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat. When Gingrich became speaker in 1995, Democrats turned the tables and used an ethics inquiry to weaken him. And throughout the Clinton years, Republicans hobbled his administration with relentless congressional investigations and demands for special prosecutors.

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