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Bush, Democrats Play 'Old Politics.' Voters Want 'New'

By Mort Kondracke

A new, non-polarized, problem-solving politics is trying to be born in this country, but -- lip service aside -- most current politicians are stuck in the old model of nonstop partisan warfare.

The old politics was richly on display Tuesday as President Bush delivered his State of the Union address and Congressional Democrats reacted.

Bush enunciated -- once again -- the clear message of the 2006 elections: "Our citizens don't care which side of the aisle we sit on --as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done."

The agenda he offered created some opportunities for bipartisan agreement -- notably, comprehensive immigration reform and reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind program -- but most Democratic commentary emphasized the negative.

In the main, Democrats gave a nod to the public's desire for bipartisan cooperation, then quickly dismissed Bush's proposals as inadequate or wrong-headed.

Typical was the reaction of Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "I welcome the president's change in tone," he said. "But though [Bush's] tone sounds more accepting of other views, his basic policies so far have not changed."

The same kind of message came from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Democrats' official SOTU responder, Sen. Jim Webb (Va.).

Webb, in particular, exuded the old politics, accusing Bush of starting the Iraq War "recklessly" and likening current economic disparities to the early 1900s, when "the dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt."

Bush should get U.S. troops out of Iraq and "take action" -- unspecified -- about "inequality," Webb said. "If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

The leading exponent of a new politics is Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose fantastic appeal lies, I think, both in his personal charisma and his promise to answer the public's hunger for nonpartisan politics -- or "post-partisan" politics, as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) calls it.

Obama had it exactly right in announcing his presidential exploratory committee last week. "America has faced big problems before," he said. "But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way.

"Politics has become bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solution," he said. "We have to change our politics and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans."

As various commentators have said, Obama represents a new generational sensibility -- a pragmatic post-boomer attitude trying to bypass the ideological hang-ups of boomer veterans of the Vietnam and cultural struggles of the 1960s.

In fact, there are multiple bipartisan efforts under way to promote consensus solutions to various problems, even some of them in Congress, such as the Senate's "bipartisan caucus" started by Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

In recent weeks, several "strange bedfellows" coalitions have announced agreements to work together on health care and education reform. One collection, including formerly hostile groups such as the liberal Families USA, the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and America's Health Insurance Plans, announced a cooperative effort to cover all of America's 9 million uninsured children by expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

Another coalition was formed by AARP, the Service Employees International Union and the Business Roundtable to jointly address both health care and the nation's long-term fiscal crisis.

Two House Members, conservative Tom Price (R-Ga.) and liberal Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and moderate Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) are co-sponsoring measures to encourage states to experiment to cover the uninsured, as Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania and other states are doing.

Bush, virtually ignoring such approaches, came up with a novel alternative to make health care more affordable by offering families a $15,000 tax deduction to buy insurance -- paying for it by limiting deductions for more expensive plans.

Without even a hearing, the plan was declared "DOA" by old-politics Democrats, including influential Reps. Pete Stark (Calif.) and John Dingell (Mich.).

Obama, encouragingly, granted that Bush's proposal was "serious" and should be addressed "in a constructive way." But he also declared that "incremental plans that do nothing to bring down costs or guarantee coverage are simply no longer sufficient" and added that "it's not going to be adequate."

Indeed, a Treasury Department analysis shows that Bush's plan will cover only 5 million of the nation's 47 million uninsured, although White House officials said it would actually cover more.

It's not health care, but the Iraq War, that mainly prevents the new politics from being born. Beyond that, presidential candidates will be pressured by ideological activists to keep the old wars alive. But, the new politics is coming because the public wants it. It will just take courage and vision to give it life.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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