PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH and his Republican allies, following a course of avid partisanship and truth-be-damned rhetoric, have changed the rules of American politics. Would-be Democratic presidential candidates in 2004 therefore face a dilemma. They can play by the new rules and increase their chance of winning, but at the risk of weakening the country. Or they can opt for responsible, moderate proposals that would strengthen American society-and almost certainly consign themselves to immediate electoral defeat.
Politicians are intensely partisan creatures. Still, they have typically agreed to practices that placed restraints on win-at-any-cost tactics. Three such practices in particular once played an important role in Washington life but no longer seem much in evidence.
The first is that sometimes a leader ought to do the right thing rather than the politically advantageous thing. No better example can be provided than Lyndon Johnson's decision to back effective civil-rights legislation in the 1960s. LBJ knew that his action would doom his party to electoral defeat (as it did, in 1968). Yet he also understood how poisonous segregation had been to American democracy. His choice, however politically suicidal at the time, is now widely admired; even conservatives who oppose affirmative action proclaim their allegiance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Second, policies have usually been viewed as more legitimate when agreed to by broad bipartisan coalitions than when passed by narrow partisan margins. This is especially true of foreign policy. Republican Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg supported Democratic President Harry Truman's Marshall Plan for aiding postwar Europe because he knew the Soviet Union would take a unified United States more seriously than a divided one. But the preference for bipartisan agreement also holds for domestic policy-and even for legal decisions. Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Republican, relied on his previous experience as governor of California to fashion a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education because he knew racist diehards would use any dissent to encourage disobedience to the law.
Third, politicians often put loyalty to their institution ahead of loyalty to their party. The US Senate in particular has been viewed by its members as a club with its own distinct rituals and responsibilities. In the past, liberal Democrats often chafed at such seemingly arcane practices as the allocation of committee chairmanships by seniority or the filibuster, which were often used in defense of segregation. But the institution nonetheless worked to temper ideological and partisan extremism. Even a firebrand liberal like Hubert H. Humphrey, who entered the Senate as a devoted reformer,
eventually won the respect of his colleagues by adhering faithfully to the Senate's way of doing business.
In contrast, Bush and his allies in Congress have followed in-your-face strategies that abhor all restraints on partisan priorities. Politics for them is an effort to create a self-sustaining Republican machine that offers benefits to the already advantaged in return for past and future campaign contributions that will enable the party to offer even more of the same. Some may believe that it is wrong for government to reward those who need its help least and to punish those who need its help most. But if any of today's Republicans question the notion of rewarding the rich at the expense of the poor, they have been remarkably quiet about it.
The best example of Bush's partisan philosophy of governance is provided by his judicial nominees. In his appointments to federal courts, Bush has consistently sought extreme conservatives capable of winning confirmation by the narrowest majorities rather than less reliably ideological candidates who could win bipartisan support. (Some nominees, in fact, are so conservative they may not win even narrow confirmation.) That the decisions of judges chosen this way will likely be contested and controversial seems to mean as little to him as the fact that his foreign policy is wildly unpopular throughout most of the world. Bush does not want merely to win-he wants his opponents to know they lost.
Institutional traditions are an obstacle to such a conception of politics. This explains why Senate majority leader Bill Frist is trying to change the filibuster rule to help Bush win confirmation of his judges, just as House majority leader Tom DeLay would never allow the long respected practice of redistricting congressional seats every 10 years to stand in the way of a chance to stuff some more Republicans into Congress. Although politicians generally do not read moral philosophy, they have, at least until now, understood implicitly the point made by the philosopher and political theorist John Rawls: The fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have. DeLay and other Republican partisans in the Congress, by contrast, believe that power gives you the right to change the rules in whatever way you can.
There is nothing to prevent Democrats from deciding that they can play the same game. Yet they have chosen not to do so, even though two recent examples of Republican overreach give them the opportunity.
Consider the recent debate over a Medicare prescription drug benefit. No issue in American politics works more to the advantage of the Democrats and less to the benefit of Republicans than health care-especially health care for the elderly. Fully aware of his vulnerability on the issue, Bush dropped his usual insistence on ideological correctness and signaled his willingness to support a bipartisan plan for adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare, a plan endorsed by Democratic senators Edward Kennedy and Tom Daschle.
As filled with inexplicable coverage gaps as the resulting bill is, it breaks a longstanding logjam on the issue and offers real benefits to the elderly, which is no doubt why many prominent Democrats support it. (They also promise to improve the benefits, but if they lose badly in 2004 they may not have a chance to do so.) True, of the four Democratic senators running for president, only Joseph Lieberman voted for the bill. But by uniting with Republicans to pass this law, the Democratic leadership permitted Bush to take his weakest issue off the table in 2004. If he campaigns as he has in the past, they also made it possible for him to distort the role key Democrats played in the legislation's passage while assigning full credit for its passage to the GOP.
The story is similar with taxation. In their tax-cutting zeal, Republican congressmen recently passed, and the president signed, a law that failed to extend a $400-per-child tax credit to those earning the minimum wage while dishing out expensive benefits to the wealthy. Had they been as intensely partisan as the Republicans, Democrats would have done their best to allow the law as written to stand. It would have provided them in 2004 what they lacked in 2000: an easily understood example of the way Republican tax-cutting violates basic conceptions of fairness.
But they chose not to engage in such ''the worse, the better'' tactics. Instead a Democrat, Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, introduced a bill to give the credit to the working poor. Ironically, Democrats may win a political advantage on this issue anyway, since DeLay's House of Representatives passed a version of the bill so laden with additional costs that it may be doomed in the Senate-House conference committee. Still, it is noteworthy that the Democratic Party's first instinct is to correct a wrong, not to make a point.
At least one law passed by the Republican majority gives Democrats an opportunity to play their own kind of politics of deception in 2004. Nothing in the law banning so-called partial birth abortion prevents a woman from having an abortion in the first trimester of her pregnancy. Democrats could nonetheless try to energize their female base by grossly exaggerating the number of women who would be deprived of their right to choose under the new law. Or they could borrow a tactic popularized by Republicans and take unusual cases-a women deprived of the right to terminate a pregnancy caused by a rapist, for example-and treat them as if they were typical.
Even if Democrats could become more aggressive and commit themselves to the no-holds-barred rules favored by their opponents, should they? My answer is no. There is more at stake in the election of 2004 than who wins. The slash-and-burn approach to both domestic and international politics taken by the Republicans has been very effective, but only in the short-term. Eventually, the United States will pay in lost international prestige for its unprovoked war in Iraq; indeed, it may have done so already. And at some point in the future, Americans will pay in high interest rates and economic stagnation the costs of the tax cuts passed now. Were they to follow Bush and his allies' strategy of dividing the country, lying about their objectives, and treating loyal opponents as enemies, Democrats would add to the poison that is damaging the trust that makes democratic politics possible.
Forced to choose between the responsible course and the winning course, Democrats may be better off insisting on doing the right things in the right way, no matter what the immediate political disadvantage. For only then can they position themselves to become the governing party when Americans begin to care about the unhappy state of their country.
Perhaps that moment will come before the 2004 election. But even if it does not, it will come some day. Americans do not want their society to violate elementary rules of fairness, nor are they in favor of a foreign policy that costs us the respect and admiration of the world. It is a safe bet that most of what President Bush accomplishes will some day need to be undone, and that large numbers of Americans will come to believe as much. The sooner that day comes, the better for the fortunes of the Democratic party-and the United States.
Alan Wolfe directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His book ''The Transformation of American Religion'' will be published in September by the Free Press.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.