Politics becomes a rougher game

In a country split down the middle, extreme power plays are on the rise from California to Capitol Hill.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Call it the summer of unconventional warfare in politics.

From the recall election in California, to the absconding legislators in Texas, to a recent standoff in the US Congress that resulted in a police summons, a growing number of the nation's partisan battles are being waged with extreme - some would say unseemly - tactics.

Many of the schemes lie well outside the normal political process: California's recall, for example, is the first in the history of the state, and only the second in the history of the nation. Similarly, legislative procedures that were once held out as a last resort, such as filibusters, are now being employed on a regular basis.

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The aggressive maneuvering demonstrates that, despite George W. Bush's promise to "change the tone" in politics, the nation's partisan warfare is continuing, and even intensifying, spreading from Washington to the states.

Some of it can be attributed to the difficult choices confronting officials as a result of ballooning budget deficits - a scenario that helped give rise to the recall in California and is producing tense standoffs in state legislatures across the country.

But it's also the result of an ongoing, and stubbornly even, political divide. Although Republicans currently control the White House and both chambers of Congress, their margins remain perilously slim, while the overall number of state legislators is almost perfectly split between the parties. With so little room to maneuver, analysts say it's not surprising parties are increasingly resorting to extreme tactics as a way to assert dominance or gain an additional edge.

"Whenever the country is split down the middle as much as it is, the partisan wars tend to heat up, precisely because the prize is at issue - the dominance of the government," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "There's this intensity that motivates aggressive actions on both sides to advance their cause."

Clinton and comity

The growing reliance on extreme tactics can be traced to the rancorous Clinton years, marked by government shutdowns and impeachment and capped by an election decided in the US Supreme Court.

Significantly, those years also saw a distinct partisan shift, in which Republicans took control of the US House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and the country's longstanding Democratic dominance in most areas of government aside from the presidency gave way to an essentially even divide.

The tight partisan competition has led to a decline in comity in Congress and elsewhere, say observers. When Democrats were in control, they "reached out to the minority frequently, because they could afford to - they knew they were going to win anyway," says James Thurber, a congressional expert at American University.

Now, however, congressional Republicans have such a slim margin of control that they have been forced to exercise strict party discipline and press their procedural advantage to its limits. At the same time, Democrats, feeling their rights are being trampled, are relying more on blocking tactics, such as filibustering judicial nominees.

This has led to some unusual confrontations: When House Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas recently tried to push a bill through committee without giving Democrats sufficient time to read it, Democrats balked and left, at which point Thomas called Capitol Police to retrieve them (he later apologized).

"The Democrats are very frustrated [by being in the minority], the Republicans also are frustrated by the Democrats using these delaying tactics - and all of that has really broken down comity," says Charles Jones, a congressional expert and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin.

A harder hardball

In the realm of electoral politics, the narrow divide is also encouraging both parties to try to pick up additional seats in any way they can - leading to some unusual tactics.

In Texas, Republicans are trying to redraw congressional boundaries, a move that could reap the GOP a handful of new seats, and which they say would bring the party's congressional delegation (currently 17 Democrats to 15 Republicans) more in line with the state's GOP tilt. Redistricting typically only takes place every 10 years, in the wake of the census, and boundaries were just redrawn in the past election cycle. As a result, Democratic legislators are strenuously objecting, with state senators taking the extreme step of fleeing the state to try to block the plan.

However, it's the California recall that may best illustrate the new face of American politics. Although the situation is so far unique, it can be seen as the product of a confluence of forces hitting states across the US, though perhaps in less extreme forms. Factors ranging from a $38 billion budget deficit to a sharply negative gubernatorial campaign in 2002 have combined to send Democratic Gov. Gray Davis's approval ratings into free fall, providing state Republicans with an unusual chance to seize leadership of the nation's largest state.

And although California is still largely Democratic, the nation's narrow partisan divide is coloring the proceedings, making Republicans more aggressive.

"National trends tend to give [California Republicans] some hope and boldness," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "Supporters of the recall reason that if we can elect Republican governors in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York, why not California?"

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