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Published: Sunday, 5/15/2005

Divisions turning politics upside down

The latest reports suggest that next week the unflinching will do the unthinkable for reasons that remain inexplicable. Washington is drifting toward the "nuclear option," a phrase that in this troubled era reflects peculiarly bad taste but that nonetheless has become the preferred shorthand for the latest flashpoint in the political cold war: the effort to break open the congressional fight on judicial nominations by removing the filibuster from the political arsenal.

All the language, images, and metaphors in this struggle are martial. But let both sides be warned: They are not prepared for this battle. And to prove the point, try applying the Powell Doctrine of foreign policy to this question of domestic policy.

The Powell Doctrine, promulgated by Colin L. Powell after his Vietnam experience, sets a high bar for warfare. Military action should be taken only as a last resort, only if there is clear risk to the nation, only when the force brought to the conflict is overwhelming, only when there is strong public support, and only when a clear exit strategy has been developed.

The nuclear option on Capitol Hill fails every element of the Powell test. There's still time for dickering (there's always time for dickering in the Senate), the threat to the nation is not grave (the logjam over the judges is irritating to the administration but not a clear and present danger to justice), the Republicans' force is not overwhelming (their majority is far smaller than the Democrats had in the latter part of the Lyndon Johnson years), public support is lacking (though this may be a function of the way poll questions are asked, as both the Washington Post/ABC News poll and the Newsweek Poll indicate public skepticism of the Republican move), and no exit strategy (from the corrosive culture of party contentiousness) is apparent from either side.

This is not a case, like World War I, when the combatants slipped into war in a fit of inattention. In this episode, all the principals know what they are doing.

But the most intriguing thing about this apparently irrepressible conflict is that the two sides enter the battle with perhaps less internal unity than at any time in a generation. The Republicans, more powerful than they have been in three-quarters of a century, are riddled with internal contradictions. Then again, the Democrats are even more divided.

This is a period of danger for both parties, and the evidence is in a revealing new study of public opinion from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. This survey shows remarkable divisions between the Democrats and the Republicans, especially on matters of national security. But it shows even more startling divisions within both the Democratic and Republican parties - divisions that fairly shriek with significance for the future of American politics.

These divisions turn up in surprising places. The Republican Party is bigger than it once was, and today it includes more lower-income people than it used to; these new Republicans are more likely than the old Republicans to favor government programs to help working-class Americans. Environmental politics - something, after all, that was invented by a Republican president (Theodore Roosevelt) and given modern form by another Republican (Richard M. Nixon) - also has the potential to divide Republicans in years to come.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are divided on social, religious, cultural, and personal values. They split far more than Republicans on whether homosexuality should be accepted by society, whether it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and to have good values, and whether the government should do more to protect morality in society. About one Democrat in seven is more comfortable with Republican views on abortion and homosexuality than with Democratic views.

Much of this underscores the strong position Republicans hold in American politics today. Look, for example, at this intriguing finding: Only 35 percent of liberals consider themselves strong Democrats. Some 51 percent of social conservatives consider themselves strong Republicans. But here's a caveat: More Republicans indicate they have voted for Democratic candidates than the reverse.

All of this tells us that politicians are far more sure of where they stand (and, more important, where they think the public stands) than is the public itself. That may seem counterintuitive; we often think of politicians as wafflers. But they tend to live more in the blacks and whites - or think of themselves as blues or reds - while ordinary people find comfort in the grays.

That's why the looming battle in Washington seems so out of synch with what is going on outside of Washington. The politicians sure seem sure of everything. The public's not so sure of anything.

There's good reason for that. The Democrats, frustrated and desperate, are betraying their own past by clinging to the filibuster as an instrument of policy. The Republicans, confident and determined, are relinquishing a tool conservatives have used to frustrate the majority in those long years in which they were in the minority.

So one side reaches for the nuclear option and the other takes refuge in a reviled tradition, and all of American politics seems upside down. That's politics, but it's not smart politics on either side.



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