Rose Garden Bipartisanship

Changing political hues in Washington

The boxing gloves were off and the handshakes were pumping at a White House Rose Garden reception and lunch for members of Congress yesterday. After 100 days of relatively thornless give-and-take on issues, let's hope the sweet smell of bipartisanship lingers long in the Washington air.

Reversing two decades of take-no-prisoners politics won't be easy. Both parties now have big machines designed to squash the opposition. Both prefer to battle over the airwaves to shape public opinion rather than sit down and calmly make the difficult deals. Both use dubious legislative tactics rather than dialogue. Both use negotiations only to smoke out an opponent's weaknesses and then use them in campaign ads.

President Bush, more than most leaders in Washington, wants to replace suspicion with respect, and work out differences collaboratively in a culture of accomplishment. As governor, he was able to do that with the conservative Democrats in Texas.

He and his Congress-handlers have certainly been civil in their tone so far during disputes over legislation or policy. But the Bush administration is less adept at signaling when its civil behavior means it will hold fast on a position and when it will compromise.

So far, Mr. Bush has shown he will fold on a campaign promise only when he can't get the necessary votes in Congress. That's been true on his $1.6 trillion tax cut and on vouchers for education reform.

He's right to hold out as long as possible for his views while also hinting that he's open to bending. But he's not shown the same up-close-and-personal approach with Democrats in Congress that he did with Democrats in Texas. His schmoozing during his first month as president has largely been replaced by his parachuting into the states of his leading opponents and using local media to put pressure on them.

He's left much of the heavy work on the Hill to Vice President Dick Cheney, who also holds the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. But on the tough issues, nothing can substitute for face-to-face talks between key lawmakers and a president.

A longtime presidential scholar calls Bush's approach "Eisenhowerish," referring to that president's inclination to stay at arm's length from the halls of Congress. Congress shouldn't need constant presidential hand-holding, but hopefully Mr. Bush won't rule out the occasional trip up Pennsylvania Avenue if the occasion demands.

After all, the president has said that civility is not just a sentiment, but a "determined choice."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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