There's a standard story about partisan gridlock: The American electorate is mostly middle of the road. The voters want the parties to work together and solve national problems. Both parties have become captured by extremists.
As columnist David Broder has written, "Washington has become such a partisan cockpit, with constant sniping between the parties on Capitol Hill and gridlock in the House and Senate."
The voters have to be sick of partisan wrangling and worried about unsolved national ills. But everything else about this fable is wrong.
For starters, one party has indeed been captured by extremists, but the other one has moved steadily toward the center.
Republicans are in the hands of theocrats and fiscal radicals so keen on dismantling government that they don't care how high the deficit goes. Meanwhile the average elected Democrat today holds roughly the views of yesterday's moderate Republicans like Elliot Richardson or Ed Brooke.
Since President Clinton, Democrats have been the party of budget balance. Since Carter, they have joined Republicans in supporting de-regulation. Just a handful of Democrats still speak of Roosevelt-scale expansions of public purpose.
Only on issues of tolerance -- gay rights, women's rights, rights of the disabled, affirmative action -- have Democrats continued to push democracy outward, and they have paid dearly. Consider who is thwarting bipartisan solutions. It is Bush who has rammed through one tax cut after another, ballooning the national debt. No bipartisanship here.
Bush, narrowly elected both times, is determined to pack the federal judiciary with hard-right judges. One editorial writer after another has urged him to appoint moderates. Nothing doing.
On Social Security, Bush appointed a commission stacked with members committed to one outcome -- privatization. Bush is now casting about for a few Democrats to lend bipartisan legitimacy to his effort to splinter the government's most successful program.
The word du jour is "cover." Bush told a Wall Street Journal interviewer, "I have a responsibility to provide the political cover necessary" for members of Congress. Translation: Many Republicans are very nervous. The president needs to put his own prestige on the line and enlist as many Democrats as he can. But so far, he has just one Democratic taker in the House and none in the Senate.
Bush just appointed another commission, on "tax simplification." As with Social Security, the conclusion is known in advance: Shift taxes off income and onto consumption, further burdening working people.
The commission is nominally bipartisan. Its cochair is former Louisiana senator John Breaux, a conservative Democrat who has spent much of his career providing cover to Republican. Under Bush there have been four instructive episodes of bipartisanship. The first, in 2001, was No Child Left Behind. Democrats agreed to tougher standards for public schools and Republicans agreed to more federal funds. The ink was scarcely dry when Bush unilaterally cut the promised funding by almost $30 billion.
The second was the war against Taliban-led Afghanistan after 9/11. Both parties supported it. If Bush had conducted his Iraq policy in the same spirit, the outcome would have been far better.
The third was the Sarbanes-Oxley law of 2003, toughening regulation of conflicts of interest after the Enron scandal. The administration and congressional Republicans resisted all year. Only when the scandal threatened to engulf the White House did the administration shift ground and Representative Michael Oxley, one of the chief Republican obstructionists, added his name to Senator Paul Sarbanes's handiwork.
The final case is the 9/11 Commission. This body was able to work effectively mainly because President Bush, who initially resisted the whole idea, failed to get his first or second choices as chair and ended up appointing a rare independent Republican, former New Jersey governor Tom Kean.
Pre-Bush, genuine bipartisanship was common. One example was Clinton's welfare reform. Another was the 1983 Greenspan Commission, which rescued Social Security. President Ronald Reagan, unlike Bush, appointed leaders from both parties who shared a commitment to saving the program. Republicans accepted a modest tax increase. Democrats accepted modest benefit cuts. The program gained 70 years of fiscal health.
The lesson? Bipartisan solutions are always possible. But when you read the next lazy piece of writing allocating equal blame for the current "partisan gridlock," consider who is really blocking progress.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2005 Boston Globe