Those lofty promises of cooperation between the Bush White House and the newly Democratic Congress have been drowned out by acrid bursts of name-calling.
Amid open confrontation between President Bush and Congress over Iraq, the White House is branding Democrats defeatists and accusing them of pursuing a surrender strategy.
To Democrats, Vice President Dick Cheney is an “attack dog” and President Bush is guilty of more political abuses than Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.
Such heated rhetoric is fouling Washington’s already tense political atmosphere. It is undercutting the pledges for greater cooperation that both sides made shortly after Democrats’ victories last November that put them back in control of the House and Senate.
It also is becoming harder to do business — even on issues less contentious than Iraq and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — now that the 2008 presidential campaign season has begun.
The House late Wednesday passed a war spending legislation that would order troops to begin coming home from Iraq by Oct. 1. The bill, already negotiated with Senate leaders, was expected to reach the president by early next week. He has pledged a veto.
The unusually snarly level of political discourse shows the deep party divisions over Bush’s strategy to increase troop levels in Iraq. But it also echoes the harsher talk and invectives on Internet blogs, talk radio and some 24-hour cable television programs.
Those in both parties appeal regularly for a lowering of the wattage of political rhetoric. That seldom happens.
Polls traditionally show the public would like to see less name-calling, said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
But sometimes, when the same people are asked whether they would like to see elected officials who represent their position make compromises, “We get a fair amount of pushback,” Kohut said. “People say, ‘Well, actually, my position on this is pretty important to me.”’
“And Iraq, more than anything else, is an issue that has really galvanized public opinion one way or the other,” Kohut said.
Reid steps to the fore
Many Republicans assumed after the November elections that incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelsoi, D-Calif., would become Bush’s most vocal critic on the Iraq war. Yet the fiercest foe in recent days has been Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has depicted the war as lost.
Bush responded by saying Reid and other Democratic leaders were choosing “to make a political statement” that was “wrong for our troops and it’s wrong for our country.” Cheney accused Reid of “defeatism” and political opportunism in trying to set a troop withdrawal timetable in the war spending bill.
Reid branded Cheney “an attack dog” and said he saw no point in getting into “a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating.”
Actually, that was a bit of a stretch. Cheney’s approval rating in national polls generally has been in the low 30s, a few points lower than Bush’s percentages.
Adding to the rancor is the back-and-forth over Gonzales, who is trying to hold onto his job as the nation’s chief law enforcer.
Lawmakers from both parties questioned him closely last week over his role in the 2006 firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Gonzales said “I don’t know” and “I can’t recall” scores of times and even some Republicans said his testimony was evasive. Bush, however, praised Gonzales’ performance and said the attorney general was “honest” and “honorable.”
That led his critics to portray the president as increasingly isolated.
“The president’s in his bunker on both the war in Iraq and Attorney General Gonzales,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “What everyone else sees clearly he doesn’t see at all, and that’s a real problem for our country.”
The White House acknowledges that language can get overheated.
“I think that what happens in Washington at times of high drama and passion on both sides of the aisle, and on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, that there are times when you’re trying to make your substantive point, that the rhetoric can sometimes lead you to say things that you might not otherwise say in a one-on-one conversation,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday.
Allan J. Lichtman, a political history professor at American University who ran for Senate last year in Maryland as a Democrat, said ideological lines have firmed in Congress with a geographic realignment that has seen disappearance of moderating influences in both parties.
No longer, he said, are there a lot of liberal and moderate Republicans in the Northeast and conservative Democrats in the South.
“We have the most polarized House and Senate that we’ve had since the New Deal days,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.