What gives Bush's plea for less partisan bickering its appeal is that the bickering did become personal, thanks to impeachment, and does sound loud, thanks to television. The time when Tip O'Neill argued revenue sharing with Ronald Reagan during the day and drank whiskey with him at night has given way to the city as a sound stage. On cable, every night is fight night where, before you tell the other side your objections to a bill, you're telling Ollie and Geraldo. The camera not only makes it harder to work out the differences, it encourages them.
Bush didn't speak out on partisan bickering during the fiercest, most personal manifestation of it two years ago, but he wants to end it now, when partisan bickering could clarify the issues. In the last debate, Bush took credit for passing a bill allowing patients to sue HMOs, when he actually fought it. But when he's not falsely claiming credit, he is glossing over the details of what it would really take to deliver love say, in the form of prescription drugs to ordinary Americans. He seeks refuge in the mantra, "I trust the people, not the government."
This sounds harmless, but in Texas it translates into trusting corporate solutions. So far, this has resulted in record-breaking dirty air in Houston and children uninsured at an alarmingly high rate. (At the federal level, in the Reagan Administration, eschewing mandatory government standards for voluntary ones led to Firestone tires flying off SUVs). This doesn't mean there's no argument for voluntary efforts over government ones, but Bush has to make it specific, not send a political mash note from his well-meaning heart.
Yet Bush has become so smooth with the Oprah language of caring (against Gore's tin ear for it) that he got the biggest applause of the night on David Letterman last Thursday when he repeated the "trust" mantra. Indeed, when Gore in the debate brought up the Dingell-Norwood bill, a bipartisan effort to solve the HMO problem, he might as well have pulled a shiny chrome instrument out of his back pocket and performed an invasive procedure on one of the Undecideds. In the face of details, Bush seeks refuge in his own good intentions, expressed in a warm bedside manner. "You can quote all the numbers you want. I'm telling you, we care about our people in Texas ..."
Bush has made a virtue out of resorting to his heart instead of his head. "Insurance," he sniffed. "That's a Washington term." Bush's way is to hug his opponents, as he did when he made a house call on the late Bob Bullock, who was the Lieutenant Governor in Texas and ran the state senate. But in a way, Bush had no choice; under the Texas system, the Lieutenant Governor is as powerful as, if not more so than, the Governor. In Washington, however, there is no single superpower to embrace, and a different ethic. You can share a lot of granola with Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt and Charlie Rangel and still not end up with the fraternal and cozy relationships that make the world go round in Austin. Like Bush, the current President believes in hugging opponents to death. But at the same time, he possesses such a chess player's grasp of the issues that Republicans often found their pockets picked.
Gore has a similar grasp of issues but little emotional reach. He made Dingell-Norwood sound like some scam rather than the best effort of Congressmen holding competing world views to balance the needs of patients against those of HMOs. It's called legislation, and until the Constitution is amended, it is how things get done. Washington can be venal and small. Viewers of 60 Minutes learned last Sunday that if you want a highway-construction contract, you have to hire a certain lobbyist named Ann Eppard, who happens to be the campaign manager and close personal friend of the congressional concrete king, Representative Bud Shuster. But Washington's not so venal that it doesn't eventually uncover the Eppards and their machinations. And it's not too small to engage in real fights, the kind that play to our larger instincts, the ones we elect our representatives to have. Love's fine, but let's hear it for bickering too.