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Civil war, uncivil opponent

Reader Randy Allred called my attention to this David Broder and Dana Milbank piece in the Washington Post on the declining level of civility in Washington under the Bush adminsitration. The authors purports to take a balanced “both sides bear the responsibiity” approach. But why run a front-page story about partisanship breaking out in Washington, under the headline “In Bush’s Term, Tone Worsened,” unless the purpose is to have a go at the president?
Except at the most superficial level, the article is slanted against Bush. First, the authors wait more than ten paragraphs before making the most obvious point about the heightened incivility — “Republicans, and even some Democrats, say there is little that Bush could have done to restore civility. With the two parties at near parity and more ideologically polarized than at any other time in modern history, every issue has the potential to provoke a showdown, and the opposition has little incentive to cooperate.” But the Post demurs that “it is also clear that Bush did not make his pledge to change the tone a top priority.” The complaint here turns out to be not with Bush’s words, but with his hardball tactics on the issues that matter to him, such as the economy and war on terror. Do Broder and Milbank actually believe that Bush’s pledge to improve the tone in Washington should limit the extent to which he pushes for his core program? It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, like E.J. Dionne, Broder and Milbank are really complaining that this Bush did not turn out to be a patsy.
The discussion of substantive issues further reveals the authors’ bias. For example, Bush is cited for his recess appointment of Charles Pickering to a federal court of appeals. Bush is given no “credit” for not taking this action earlier and more often (as conservatives have called on him to do) in the face of unpredecented filibusters by Democrats over a series of nominees. Nor do the authors point out that Bush nominated a liberal judge (Roger Gregory) upon whom President Clinton had conferred a recess appointment. Bush did this as a peace offering early in his administration when he presented Congress with a balanced slate of court of appeals nominees. The Democrats responded by confirming the liberals and moderates while blocking most of the conservatives, preventing some of them from even receiving a vote.
Milbank and Broder also rehearse the Democrats’ complaint about the debate over the creation of the Homeland Security Department in which Bush attacked Democrats for paying too much interest to the concerns of special interest groups. But they neglect to point out that creating a homeland security bureaucracy was the Democrats’ idea, initially opposed by the administration. This fact undercuts the piece’s underlying claim that the Democrats have no influence over policy. In a “civil” Washington I suppose the Dems would have gotten their new bureaucracy but without insisting to the bitter end on all of the standard bureaucratic trappings that federal employees’ unions want. Bush did his part, but the Democrats overplayed their hand.
Finally, it’s difficult to see how one can write this sort of piece without comparing the rhetoric employed by the two sides. Broder and Milbank don’t really undertake such a comparison, probably because they know they can’t find any rhetoric from President Bush that remotely resembles the vicious attacks leveled by the likes of Ted Kennedy. Instead, they minimize the importance of Bush’s almost unfailingly civil discourse (something one might have thought is the hallmark of civility) and take him to task for pushing too hard for his agenda. Again, the real criticism isn’t about civility or tone, but substance and policy.
Fortunately, though, the public appears to apply the more normal definitions of “tone” and “civility.” As Broder and Milbank acknowledge, “There is some evidence that Americans perceive Bush has, indeed, brought more comity to the capital. In the December Washington Post-ABC News poll, a majority of Americans, 58 percent, said Bush had done more to unite than to divide the country.” The purpose of the Broder and Milbank piece seems to have been to help reverse that perception.

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