Partisan, Not Personal

Pro wrestlers, or members of Congress? That's a question United States citizens might fairly ask their elected representatives these days. Personal pokes, prods, and threats have become all too common on Capitol Hill. Some days, some members get so worked up that all they're lacking is a mask and a snappy macho nickname.

Our solution? One thing that might help: more partisanship.

"Hold it!," you say. "Shouldn't that be bipartisanship?" Not necessarily. We're talking about partisanship in its classic sense, meaning taking the part of a party and its beliefs. Much of the incivility in Washington these days has little to do with partisanship. Instead, it seems personal attack, rooted in a cycle of revenge.

Consider the most obvious case. Former Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright was dethroned via attacks on his ethics led by GOP Rep. Newt Gingrich. Now Speaker Gingrich is tottering, owing in part to ethics charges brought by Democratic Rep. David Bonior of Michigan. Does anyone in Washington doubt that Bonior himself is now high on some GOP hit lists?

This does not mean we believe that Wright, Gingrich, et al. did nothing wrong. It does mean that we look skeptically at the motives of lawmakers who lambaste their fellows by name while purporting to speak for the public interest. Feuds don't advance either party's agenda.

And that's where partisanship comes in. There are too many US politicians who should speak more about their own values and less about opposition fund-raising techniques. Presumably they have chosen their party because of something it stands for. Let's hear about that, and how it affects their solutions for America's problems. Partisanship per se does not preclude political action. Instead it can define the ground over which compromise can occur.

For instance, President Clinton and GOP congressional leaders could never have come to terms on last week's balanced budget accord without a thorough airing of differences. Senate passage of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an even better example of what we're talking about.

The deal the White House struck with the pact's chief opponent, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, was an unacknowledged and wide-ranging compromise that depended on each side clearly stating its position on everything from chemical terrorism to foreign aid.

So bring on discussion. There's nothing wrong with jaw, jaw, in Washington. The problems begin when the argument is empty.

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