Thirty-seven months ago, President-elect George W. Bush stood in the Texas House chamber and called for the nation's leaders to "put politics behind us and work together" after the bitter Florida recount.
"I am optimistic that we can change the tone in Washington, D.C.," he said after the Supreme Court cemented his victory. "I believe things happen for a reason, and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past. Our nation must rise above a house divided."
President Bush gives 2003 State of the Union address. Partisans on both sides say the tone of political discourse is as bad as ever -- if not worse.
(Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
But as Bush begins the final year of his term with Tuesday night's State of the Union address, partisans on both sides say the tone of political discourse is as bad as ever -- if not worse.
Democrats complain that they have been shut out of all legislative action and that those who challenge Bush have their patriotism questioned and may be accused of aiding terrorists. Republicans counter that Democrats seem intent on blocking all Bush initiatives and are running a presidential primary campaign based on personal attacks on the president.
There have been moments of civility, such as the crafting of bipartisan education legislation and the national unity that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But those moments have been overtaken by bitterness.
Early in the term, "I had high hopes for Bush" changing the tone, said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a voice of civility in Congress. "We were on the high road then, but now I think we've hit an all-time low."
Just this past week, Bush infuriated Senate Democrats and escalated a long-standing partisan feud by making a recess appointment of Charles W. Pickering Sr., a jurist whose nomination had been blocked by Senate Democrats. Also last week, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who had collaborated with Bush in drafting the education bill, delivered a blistering speech calling the Bush administration "breathtakingly arrogant," dishonest, "vindictive and mean-spirited." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) fired back that Kennedy's "hateful attack against the commander in chief would be disgusting if it were not so sad."
Democrats blame Bush and his Republican allies in Congress. "President Bush said he wanted to change the tone in Washington, and I think he has: I think it's gotten worse," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) has said. "I think it's more acrimonious, I think it's more confrontational, I think it's far more bitterly partisan, and I think he has a big share of the responsibility for the fact that it is what it is."
Republicans, though not blaming Bush, generally agree that civility has not improved. "Since the Clinton years, everything has become a shootout at high noon, and there are many fewer mornings in America," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan.
What went wrong with Bush's pledge to change the tone? Lawmakers and officials from this and previous administrations say the push for civility was derailed both by structural evolutions in the U.S. political system and by a lack of will among the nation's leaders -- who, naturally, blame each other.
Republicans, and even some Democrats, say there is little that Bush could have done to restore civility. With the two parties at near parity and more ideologically polarized than at any other time in modern history, every issue has the potential to provoke a showdown, and the opposition has little incentive to cooperate. But it is also clear that Bush did not make his pledge to change the tone a top priority.
Democrats, and some independent observers, say that if Bush had been serious about changing the tone in Washington, he would have sought to reach common ground with his opponents, and not just use civil words while forcing an unyielding agenda on them. Starting with Bush's first tax cut and extending through the response to terrorism and the Iraq war, he has been uncompromising, they say.
"It's his way or no way," said Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate minority whip. "He's a man who campaigned on having a better relationship, and it's exactly the opposite of what he said he would do. I've never served with anybody who is so uncooperative."
Thomas E. Mann, a government scholar with the Brookings Institution, said Bush surrendered any hope of restoring civility when he decided to push his undiluted agenda despite the historically close 2000 election. "He had opportunities to make some headway in that regard, but in every case he decided he had higher priorities," Mann said. "He might have considered some changes from campaign platform. Instead, he picked one issue, education, but for everything else, he played hardball."