In US politics, the post-attack thaw is over

Recession and successful war turn attention back to partisan domestic battles.

After two-plus months of relative bipartisan calm, the political climate in this city has turned appreciably coarser.

Both Democrats and Republicans are acting as if political détente is ending and the good feelings of the fall were less about a "new Washington" than it was a temporary cease fire.

The quick and relatively painless war in Afghanistan and the start of the 2002 congressional campaign have cut short cooperative feelings that dominated this city immediately after Sept. 11, analysts say. Absent any cataclysmic events, Washington is well on its way to returning to normal partisanship.

"We were living in a very artificial setting, and now we are emerging from it," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Report, a political newsletter. "What we're seeing is the inevitable reappearance of traditional political lines and traditional political arguments."

In the last week, President Bush and Vice President Cheney took pointed shots at congressional Democrats for holding up work on the economic-stimulus bill. And Democrats questioned the tactics of the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Renewed bickering

But the renewed bickering is about more than managing the war's homefront. Last week, Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, issued an open letter to the vice president asking about "secret contacts" between the Enron Corp. and the energy task force he chaired.

There is now talk that Congress will leave town early for Christmas instead of working to pass legislation.

The return to partisanship as usual in Washington may have arrived abruptly, but it is not exactly unexpected.

As 2001 turns into 2002, Washington's attention naturally turns to midterm elections. And when election politics enter the calculations of the Hill and the White House, legislation naturally slows and bipartisanship breaks down, as neither side wants to give the other too many victories.

This is particularly true going into the 2002 elections, observers say, as the margins in both the House and the Senate are wafer- thin.

"We've already gone through one small election cycle post Sept. 11 and the country handled it well, so things are beginning to gear up," says pollster John Zogby. "You simply can't run a nonpartisan campaign when you're talking about a six-seat difference in the House and one seat in the Senate."

In addition, recent forecasts of a quick economic turnaround, combined with a recovering stock market, may have also taken away from some of the urgency around the stalled stimulus bill.

The quick defeat of the Taliban is also playing into the renewed political jousting.

Only three months ago, with Americans still shaking and recovering from the attack, Hill Democrats and Republicans stood arm in arm on the steps of the Capitol, talking about working together and even singing God Bless America.

But, absent another major crisis, such shows of solidarity seem less necessary now.

"If this was still a question of can we win this war, things might be different," Rothenberg says. "But the war is slowing, moving off the front pages now, and that means people are freer to talk about other issues."

And that means President Bush may face the same situation his father encountered as president.

A quick victory abroad opens up the door to renewed interest in domestic issues just as a recession weighs down American voters.

Democrats are already thinking this way as the midterm election year approaches.

Democratic strategy

At a recent Monitor breakfast, a group of Democratic strategists released a poll showing Americans were turning to their attention to domestic issues, where, the strategists maintained, Democrats hold an edge.

"He is doing a good job on the war. That doesn't mean that this translates into support of his domestic policies," said James Carville, a strategist for former President Bill Clinton. "He is doing probably worse on economic and domestic issues than I thought."

Marlin Fitzwater, White House Press Secretary during the first Bush administration, says the change in tone is not dissimilar from what he witnessed following the Gulf War.

"What has happened is the Democrats have looked at the poll numbers and decided 'The War is yours. We'll make it ours and we'll argue over everything else.' They need to show the divisions they have with Republicans or they give people no reason to vote for them."

The real test, however, is not just rhetoric but whether the House and Senate begin lining up along party lines for votes, Fitzwater says.

As the legislation begins to pile up in Congress with no one looking to give much that scenario is looking increasingly likely.

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