Bill Clinton's Advice: Make Friends, Not Enemies
As the presidential campaign heats up, Bill Clinton has some governing advice for the eventual winner. Based on his eight years in the White House, Clinton believes there is actually a way to reduce the partisan tensions that have plagued both his own and George W. Bush's presidencies.
Bush is the most polarizing president in modern history. He inherited a 50-50 nation when he came to Washington in 2001 and rather than becoming the uniter he promised, made matters worse. He pursued a governing strategy that sought to enact a conservative agenda on the basis of razor-thin, partisan majorities in the Congress and an electoral strategy that accentuated his conservative base at the expense of the middle.
But rampant partisanship predated Bush's arrival in Washington. It was building long before the 2000 election, as Clinton and a Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich staged ever-more-bitter battles, culminating in Clinton's impeachment in 1998. In ways both personal and political, the Clinton presidency set the stage for what was to follow.
This history and much more is analyzed shrewdly in "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America," the new book written by Ronald Brownstein, formerly a reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and now political director for the Atlantic Media Company.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Brownstein is a friend and colleague. A decade ago, we co-authored a book about the 1994 Republican landslide and the new shape of the GOP under Newt Gingrich. I write this, however, not out of friendship but of admiration for the new work, which is a skillful blend of history and contemporary political analysis.
Brownstein is more an admirer of Clinton's presidency than of Bush's, and as part of his reporting, he interviewed the former president at some length. Out of that came a series of provocative insights that could be helpful to whoever becomes the 44th president of the United States.
It's also clear, from things Hillary Clinton has said about the problem of polarization, that she and her husband have talked about what the next president -- particularly one named Clinton -- could face in terms of partisan resistance, and how to reduce it.
The former president believes he would have been better served by spending more time in conversation with political leaders from the opposition party. Clinton was much more inclined to seek advice -- and listen to the ideas -- of Republicans than Bush has been of Democrats.
But he told Brownstein, "If I had to do it over again, I would block out significantly greater time... to just bring these guys in and let them say whatever the hell they want to say to me... I found that people that I ordinarily, superficially, would not have that much in common with would be quite helpful."
Clinton's other proposals are more prosaic than provocative, and yet as a guide for the next president, they are worth studying. For starters, he recommends saying attuned to the opposition's ideas and critiques of White House policy. In Clinton's view, there is no particular reason to stay abreast of the continual partisan chatter or attacks. Screening those out is natural and useful. But in his estimation, when someone from the opposition -- politician, strategist or thinker -- offers an insightful criticism of what an administration is doing, the president would benefit by studying it.
Another is to build trust before launching big reforms. Clinton now regrets that after the brutal budgetary wars of his first months in office, he immediate thrust his health care reform plan on the Congress (which then was still in Democratic hands). He wishes now he had taken up welfare reform, where he and the Republicans eventually found common ground.
Confidence-building gestures are another way of reducing partisan warfare. Clinton believes that bipartisan cooperation can be habit-forming and he urged some of his advisers to look for areas on which the White House and conservatives could agree. Hillary Clinton has followed this strategy as a senator, working across party lines with any number of conservative Republicans on smaller, targeted proposals, whether on foster care with former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas or reducing sex and violence on television with former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Bush has governed with what critics have called a "50-plus-one" strategy. Clinton argues that, as a practical matter, it may be difficult for any president to get more than 55 percent support for anything. But he says presidents ought to attempt to speak to a significantly larger percentage of the county with an agenda that appeals beyond his party's base to independents and even moderates in the other party. "You want your issues, your package -- something in there -- to have appeal to two thirds of the people...," he told Brownstein.
His last recommendation is most intriguing because it both takes for granted that combat is part of politics and may be necessary to produce eventual accommodation across the partisan divisions. Responding forcefully to opponents is necessary to set the stage for eventual compromise. In his view, if an opponent hits you hard, the public will not penalize you for hitting back.
But he believes presidents should avoid allowing those moments to define the parameters of relationships between a president and the opposition. He said there is value in letting opponents know "their government doesn't consider them pariahs because they disagree."
All this helped provide some context for something Hillary Clinton told the Post last month during an interview on the campaign trail. She said that, while she and others agree there is a need to reduce partisanship, simply hoping it will go away would not make it happen.
"You can't just wake up and say let's all just hold hands and be together," she said. "You've got to demonstrate that you're not going to be cowed or intimidated or deterred by it, and then you can reach out and bring people who are of good faith together."
This balance between standing firm and reaching out will be the true test of the next president's ability to reduce partisan tensions in Washington. Bill Clinton has practical suggestions for getting beyond the current politics, and no doubt Bush has some of his own.
Perhaps Bush's departure will ease tensions between the two parties, and perhaps the next president will strike the right notes to help accelerate that reduction. But as Hillary Clinton said, it will take more than wishing it away because the forces that created the America's polarized politics remain powerful -- as the presidential campaign now underway shows every day.
Washington Post editors
November 14, 2007; 2:04 PM ET
Categories: A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take
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