Politics of the Whole

'WHO does he think he is? He's not the president!'' This has often been the reaction to Newt Gingrich when he has railed too strongly against Bill Clinton in the long-playing budget saga.

Mr. Gingrich is Speaker of the House, elected by his Republican colleagues in Congress and by no one else apart from the voters in his Georgia district. He has done one whale of a job as Speaker - at times, almost too good a job at framing the contest with the White House. He's done that while driven by the pack of freshman Republicans bent on sudden reforms, all the while maintaining an intellectual framework for his program. But he isn't the president.

Still, voters looking at the presidential candidates moving from Iowa to New Hampshire may want to consider how each could deal with a legislative process that is more polarized than at any time in decades.

Here let me post two contrasting trends: the standoff in Congress between Republicans and Democrats that has left little ground for moderation or compromise; and a longer-term nationalization of American politics that since the civil rights-torn 1960s has seen a narrowing of divisions on social and economic issues.

Trend 1: The voting record of Congress in 1995 was unprecedented for the number of state delegations that scored zero on the liberal/conservative rating cards of groups like the Americans for Democratic Action. Many state delegations maintained their longtime profiles. Liberal Massachusetts and New York congressmen helped lead the Northeast to a 54 percent liberal rating, while California and much of the rest of the West showed its familiar political schizophrenia with an even split between Democrats in the 80-plus percent liberal range and Republicans in the single-digit conservative range.

A party-line voting strategy lay behind this polarization, of course. Democrats and Republicans held together a majority of their memberships in opposing each other on 73 percent of the votes in the House and on 69 percent of the votes in the Senate: both are records (the unity vote average was in the mid-40 percent range for four decades).

Note that the Clinton White House has made effective use of its own troops in Congress: In fact, when Republicans (usually the less cohesive party) make strong unity showings, the Democrats may be doing even better, as was the case under Speaker Tip O'Neill against Reagan's GOP.

The recent quick compromise on the telecommunications bill suggests a new pattern may be evolving.

Product liability reform, regulatory reform, line-item veto are issues that may get compromise treatment, says Congress analyst Norman Ornstein. Republicans sense they appear to want things too much their own way, not only ideologically but in the balance-of-power equation - the House leadership wanting to run Congress and the White House too.

Trend 2: the nationalization of US politics. In 1965, the difference between the most liberal and most conservative regions in congressional voting patterns was 40 percent: The Northeast scored 60 percent liberal, the South about 20 percent liberal. By 1980 the gap had shrunk to 30 percent (58 percent/28 percent). It now stands at 20 percent (54 percent/34 percent). Over the same period the gap between the more liberal West and the moderate Midwest shrank from 12 percent in 1965 to barely 1 percent in 1995.

Compared with passionate issues like civil rights, Vietnam, the cold war, even early farm policy, today's political agenda is tame. Education (especially higher education for women), globalization, technology, communication are now casting issues more for the whole of America than for its parts.

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