The Washington Times
As President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle square off over taxes, the federal budget surplus and the state of the economy, it’s interesting to see how September 11 has reframed the context of our political disputes.
On Sept. 10 and before, when Mr. Bush and Mr. Daschle squared off, it was war: bitter partisan struggle, permanent offense, air war and ground war, attacks designed to put the enemy on the defensive, war rooms manned by masters of disaster, the Hezbollah wing of the Republican Party vs. the jihad wing of the Democratic Party in the politics of personal destruction. In the September 11 world, as it happens, for simple reasons of good taste, we do not speak in these terms. The use of them in describing our domestic politics is metaphorical – and was rather dramatically revealed as such by the course of actual war in Afghanistan and soon, elsewhere.
But then again, they weren’t entirely metaphorical. They did, in fact, capture something of the spirit of the times. The animosity was genuine; the partisan hatred was mutual, at least for many in the party cadres. But the hatred was channeled by a domestic political system in which we have decided it’s best not to actually kill each other. Whew.
Then came September 11, and it was time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their country (not their party). That we did, minus the small number of hopeless ignoramuses who think they don’t have a dog in this fight (and who are not, by the way, political people in the partisan Democratic or Republican sense; they are radicals, and fortunately, largely irrelevant outside the academy). Now, in the context of Sept. 10, there is a problem here for Democrats, namely, that the occupant of the White House is a Republican (the legitimacy of the election of whom is questionable at best). How much support does he deserve?
But this is September 11, and so there is no problem. Democrats no less than Republicans, who would have been inclined to support Mr. Bush anyway, understand full well that the president needs support across-the-board in waging a war to protect our way of life. They support him.
But there are genuinely mixed emotions here. To cheer themselves up, some Democrats concoct a mordant alternate-history scenario to remind themselves of their superior virtue: It’s actually a good thing that Bill Clinton wasn’t president September 11 (Republicans are with them fully so far, but here it comes) since the obsessively Clinton-hating partisan Republicans in Congress would never have supported him in a war against al Qaeda, and then where would the country be? For proof, look at Bosnia and Kosovo.
And Democrats are especially worried that Mr. Bush will use their support of him in the war effort and the predictable spike in the job-approval ratings of a wartime president as leverage to ram through the administration’s domestic agenda, with which Democrats profoundly disagree. Before September was out, some commentators with Democratic leanings were openly warning the president not to exploit his position, lest the bipartisan support for the war effort be jeopardized.
They were bluffing, of course; there is no way that leading Democrats, miffed about tax cuts for the rich, would suddenly turn against the war effort. Again, September 11 was too big an event for all Americans. National survival is something favored across party lines, and support for it is not going to disappear in a fit of pique over a cut in the capital gains tax.
So instead, when Republicans, especially on Capitol Hill, worked up Republican-type measures on domestic policy, Democrats worked up Democrat-type measures against them, or simply opposed the GOP. So it is that we have arrived at the point at which Mr. Daschle has denounced the president’s tax cut, and Mr. Bush has denounced what he saw as an implicit call for tax increases.
Lo and behold, it turns out we can have a ripping war effort against the “evildoers” of the world with full bipartisan support and a full-throat partisan argument over taxing and spending. It took the context of September 11 to make us aware of this fact. As E. J. Dionne Jr. noted in his New Year’ s column, “We may be more closely knit together, but we are still a fractious, strong-willed people who cherish our right to differ. Terrorism hasn’t canceled this privilege. We can celebrate that.”
We used to be divided by our divisions. Now we are united by them. That’s because now we understand that our divisions aren’t fundamental, but presuppose something on which we are united and which we are now defending.