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Published: Sunday, 9/18/2005

Extreme partisanship chills capital's climate

WASHINGTON - It's been a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad month. And it's not even over.

With hundreds of thousands of people uprooted, their lives in turmoil, their misery unfathomable, we now have the spectacle of politicians caviling over what went wrong, who's to blame, what to do next, how much to spend. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.

And we've had the John Roberts hearings. They have brought out the worst and the ugliest aspects of Capitol Hill. Rancor, suspicion, and distrust are so legion that even our smartest and ablest can't talk to each other without malice. They don't even hear each other.

Thomas Kean, the mild-manner former Republican governor of New Jersey and former chairman of the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, fretted the other day: "Extreme partisanship is a sickness in this country today. I've personally never seen it as bad as it is now."

Why?

There are as many opinions, I'm sure, as there are members of Congress, callers to radio talk shows, newspaper readers, and White House pollsters.

Feel free to turn the page, but here are mine, culled from several decades of watching Washington at work. Or not.

We all love the flag, the national anthem (even if we can't sing it), our starry history, the amazing physical breadth of our country, our can-do spirit, our friendliness and compassion, our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence, even our increasingly rampant materialism.

But we don't love our government. Even more important, we don't agree at all on what our government is supposed to do for us, to us, or with us. Some of us want government to punish our neighbor, validate our personal beliefs, and leave us alone, especially when times are good.

More than anything, that's what the Roberts hearings showed. Yes, tedious they often were, with senators talking to hear themselves talk, and Mr. Roberts talking to chew up time and show off his humble modesty. (Memo to spouses: If you're on TV while your partner is talking in baseball cliches, no painfully obvious yawning behind him/her.) But the shorthand was this: Government is no longer about the little guy.

Time after time, Democrats meandered around the notion that the laws Congress passes are supposed to help the downtrodden, the afflicted, the disabled, the poor, the uneducated, the discriminated-against, the victim. That's why they're so frustrated that Mr. Roberts wouldn't hail such congressional efforts such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Violence Against Women Act.

Finally, on the third day, he said it. Sometimes, abiding by the Constitution means the little guy won't win, and the big guy does.

That's what the contretemps over the mess that harridan Katrina left us is about as well. Republicans argue the federal government can't and shouldn't be expected to do everything, that it was local and state government's fault that people perished and were forced to live like animals for days. Democrats insist that in a natural disaster of such magnitude, only the federal government has the resources to get the job done. Some even want to give victims compensation such as the money dispensed to the 9/11 families.

President Bush now suddenly wants it both ways. He's willing to spend billions of tax dollars we will have to borrow from other countries to rebuild Louisiana and Mississippi and, not coincidentally, rebuild his presidency. But he also wants a Supreme Court packed with conservatives who will support big corporations, make abortion and assisted suicide illegal, overturn environmental restrictions, pay little heed to international law, uphold the death penalty, and not make laws.

The trouble is not everyone agrees with that philosophy or even that nine people on the Supreme Court should have such immense power over all aspects of life. Many in Congress, including Republicans, for example, were furious when the court decided that a city could take a citizen's private property for the use of private entrepreneurs involved in urban redevelopment. Many were angry that the court said a disabled woman who had to be carried upstairs to a courtroom by the judge had no special rights after Congress said she did.

Our history has not been a smooth one. We have had many periods when even our branches of government fought tooth and nail. The bitterness of the Vietnam War era was a relatively short time ago. The fratricide of the Civil War still trickles through our society.

But there is something uniquely chilling about the current climate. Call it lack of civility or an adamant refusal to engage in polite debate or a worrisome mean-spiritedness toward those who disagree with us.

It's not getting any better. This month, it got a lot worse.



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