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Banner of bipartisanship begins to fray

Weeks before George W. Bush is sworn in as the country’s 43rd president, the fabric of the bipartisanship banner is beginning to fray.

It looks as if Bush won’t get much of a honeymoon as the edgy elements of the Republican family, who agreed to be on their best behavior during the campaign, come home for their rewards.

First, there’s Arizona’s maverick Sen. John McCain, who endorsed Bush in May and again at the August convention in Philadelphia. He remained fairly quiet throughout the rest of the campaign, but now that he’s back at his desk in the Senate, he has made it known that he is in full pursuit once again of campaign finance reform.

If Bush places any stock in his pledge to work across party lines for the good of the country, this is likely to be his first big test. McCain, during his brief run for the presidential nomination, tapped a deep vein of revulsion among the populace at the degree to which our politics have been purchased by corporations and special interests.

In the most recent presidential campaign, fundraising hit a record amount, with the two major parties garnering nearly half a billion dollars in soft money.

McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., co-authors of the campaign finance reform bill that bears their names, think they are close to the 60 Senate votes that would enable them to quash a filibuster, which killed the bill the last time it was able to attract a slim majority in the Senate.

Recent congressional election results give additional hope to reformers. Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington, for example, a strong advocate of reform, defeated Republican Sen. Slade Gorton. Gorton, who opposed McCain-Feingold, was one of five Republicans opposed to reform who are not returning to the Senate.

Perhaps that kind of hard political reality will inspire Bush to take on Republican Senate leaders such as Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Trent Lott of Mississippi, who want nothing to do with the issue. Bush could attract enormous goodwill and make a very convincing case for his intent to work in a bipartisan way if he were to put his administration’s support strongly behind McCain’s campaign reform efforts.

Bush will have to contend with the right wing of the Republican Party, which was remarkably silent during the convention and throughout much of the campaign. One far-right analysis holds the view that conservatives can hope for little out of a Bush administration. Wrote Richard Lessner of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group in Washington, “Many social and religious conservatives signed on early with Bush because he seemed to offer the best chance to beat Gore, surrogate for the unbeaten and apparently unbeatable Clinton, not because many of them believed Bush would deliver on their issues. Beating Clinton-qua-Gore was enough for them.

“Well it appears the religious conservatives have their reward. And that’s as much as they’re likely to get.”

Perhaps Lessner is correct, but it would appear that with certain cabinet nominations, notably former Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., for attorney general, Bush has begun to reward the conservatives’ good behavior.

But he also has, in the nomination of Ashcroft and that of Gale A. Norton for secretary of the interior, ripped the guise of bipartisanship from the image of his administration before it even starts. Norton is the former attorney general of Colorado and an alumnus of the Reagan Interior Department headed by James Watts, notorious mostly for his drive to upend the very environmental regulations that his department was charged to enforce.

Ashcroft, one of those public officials who trade on being a little pro-life to great advantage, has already energized considerable opposition among Democrats. Ashcroft is opposed to abortion but strongly advocates capital punishment, opposes any hint of gun control and has raised many questions about whether he will be able to enforce civil rights laws that protect minorities and statutes protecting equal rights for women.

All of that will early visit an administration that owes its office largely to a Supreme Court decision, and one that will also find itself trying to explain away the stories that inevitably will begin filtering out of Florida detailing the degree of disenfranchisement that occurred at the hands of faulty voting machines, political shenanigans and the courts. At the same time, any analysis will note that Al Gore’s lead in the popular vote has increased since the original counts and now numbers more than half a million.

Some may have sighed with relief when the tedious count in Florida was ended by the Supreme Court. At least, for the moment, there was some finality. But the real consequences of this strangest of elections have just begun to unravel.

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001