Politics getting more polarized

Posted: Sunday, September 07, 2003

WASHINGTON President Bush promised during the 2000 election that he would change the tone of politics in Washington. Yet seldom have American politics been so polarized and uncivil as today, not just in the capital but across the country.

Despite a national coming-together after the terrorist attacks whose two-year anniversary is this week, recent polls suggest Bush has become as polarizing as Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were while in the White House.

''He has squandered the good will of the world after Sept. 11,'' Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., declared last week. Kerry and the eight other Democrats seeking the presidency kept up a barrage of attacks, not only against the president but one another.

Roughly one in three voters say there is no chance they would ever vote for Bush's re-election. About the same number indicate they would vote for him no matter what. Polls suggest Bush has made little inroad among Democratic voters despite a surge in his approval ratings after the Sept. 11 attacks and during the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Meanwhile, California Republicans are pressing to recall a Democratic governor elected just 10 months ago. Texas Democratic legislators fled to New Mexico in an attempt to thwart a GOP congressional redistricting plan. Cash-strapped governors are venting frustration over the worst state budget crises in decades.

Congress, under narrow Republican control, is mired in a state of near-gridlock, even though elections are more than a year away.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is stymied by Democratic filibusters, which led to last week's withdrawal of judicial nominee Miguel Estrada. For more than two years, Democrats had blocked his nomination for a federal appeals court judgeship.

Across the Capitol, the Republican chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bill Thomas of California, summoned the Capitol Police at one point this summer to break up a meeting of committee Democrats.

Rancor has been increasing, especially in Congress, said Charlie Black, a veteran GOP strategist and former chair of the Republican National Committee. ''I guess you could say the trend continues,'' he said.

''A big part of it is that the parties tend to be more philosophically polarized. There aren't many conservative Democrats left, and there aren't many Republican liberals left,'' Black said.

What does this mean for Bush's re-election efforts?

''Any president has to run on his record anyhow. So he needs to accentuate the positive as much as he can and be a good counterpuncher,'' Black said.

Analysts give a variety of reasons for the lack of civility and political rage.

They cite the difficulty to find middle ground on issues such as abortion and Iraq, deepening cultural differences and desires in both parties to right what they see as past wrongs.

Democrats are still fuming over the narrow loss of the 2000 election and the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Many Republicans harbor lingering resentments toward the Clinton presidency and still want to settle the score with Senate Democrats who torpedoed Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.

''There's an enormous amount of linguistic chaos that makes it easier to just shout and yell,'' said Wayne Fields, an expert on political rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis.

He mentions confrontational tactics used by both parties, beginning with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and his disciples, and continuing today on talk radio and some cable television formats.

''There are a lot of tensions. The anxiety level is pretty high. There are a lot of people who feel they're getting pinched by somebody else's political ambitions,'' Fields said.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, suggests the coarsening of political discourse is only following broader trends in American culture.

''Look at Hollywood, look at the movies produced, look at what's on television, the language used, the situations portrayed,'' Sabato said. "Why should our politics be any different?"

Thomas Cronin, president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and a leading scholar on presidential politics, notes that the country is closely divided politically and says that explains many of the ''mean-spirited things which both parties have done to each other.''

Still, Cronin said, ''Two years ago this month, we rallied around the country and the government.''

But the United States, he said, has a history of being ''tough customers on those who would be leaders. Anybody who seeks office has got to be prepared. It comes with the territory.''

EDITOR'S NOTE Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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