BOSTON -- There's an important lesson in the performance of the Sept. 11 commission -- if John Kerry and the Democrats meeting here this week care to heed it. The praise lavished on the panel that investigated the terrorist attacks and came up with a unanimous set of recommendations demonstrates the intensity of the public appetite for political leadership that looks beyond partisanship. Kerry has a great opening to offer such leadership -- if he has it in him.
So much has been said about the polarization of our politics that it is easy to assume this is a chronic condition. Whether one looks at the returns from the 2000 presidential race or consults the polls about the party preferences of likely voters, Republicans and Democrats appear to be in almost perfect mathematical balance. That is believed to be the reason Washington has become such a partisan cockpit, with constant sniping between the parties on Capitol Hill and gridlock in the House and Senate.
The great message the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States imparts is that the right leadership can overcome even the most deep-seated of partisan divisions and deal effectively with vital issues.
The commission was born in controversy. Congressional Democrats were pressing for an investigation of what they charged were failures of intelligence and lapses in top-level attention in the months preceding the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Bush White House resisted the demands as long as it could, then sought to curtail the scope and time for the inquiry. The makeup of the commission seemed almost designed to put obstacles in the way of agreement. Five Democrats and five Republicans, each with clear partisan sponsorship, were named by the White House and congressional leaders. Their number included prominent former officeholders of both parties and people with a well-earned reputation for taking shots at the other side.
Few would have predicted a weighty and substantive product -- let alone one that would come to the country with the enthusiastic endorsement of all 10 commissioners. Principal credit for the achievement must go to the commission's Republican chairman, former governor Tom Kean of New Jersey, and its Democratic vice chairman, former representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana. Those who knew the two men regarded both as large-minded and responsible. Kean had been an effective governor in a state with a significant bloc of Democratic legislators. Hamilton was a notably independent member of the House who, even as a freshman, stood up to pressure from Lyndon Johnson, then at the height of his powers.
The two men did not know each other at all well, but they quickly formed a working partnership that became a model for their colleagues. When they came, as a team, to a press breakfast in May, arranged by the Christian Science Monitor, they were able to brag that there had yet to be a single partisan vote within the commission. Notably, both stressed their commitment to an open process, saying they had learned from the examples of the investigations of Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination that secrecy only breeds suspicion and conspiracy theories.
What is the lesson for the Democrats in all this? It was put simply by Democratic commission member Richard Ben-Veniste in an interview last week with National Public Radio. There is, he said, "a hunger in the country" for bipartisanship.
President Bush recognized that hunger four years ago when he promised, as a candidate, to change the tone in Washington. But he has failed -- and it is not clear that, after being rebuffed, he even considers the effort worth another try. Meanwhile, his political allies in Congress -- particularly in the House -- are regularly riding roughshod over the Democratic minority. The pattern of abuse -- rigged conferences with Democrats excluded, snap votes with minimal notice to members, stretched roll calls to allow more arm-twisting by Republican leaders -- has reached a height not seen even in the worst parts of the Democrats' 40-year reign.
Kerry has the opportunity this week to pledge a different approach -- to promise to create an administration that will call on the talents of Republicans and independents as well as Democrats, and to hold his party's congressional leaders to the vows they have already made to include Republicans in the work of legislation. His role model, John Kennedy, did both those things as president, and the country benefited. Can Kerry pledge to step beyond partisanship and do the same thing?