When NBC's "Meet the Press" teamed Bob Dole and Thomas S. Foley as guests, the producers must have assumed that their audience knew, without being told, that Dole is the Senate Republican leader and Foley the Democratic speaker of the House.
But nothing they said would have given you a clue to their partisanship.
They agreed on everything: that President Bush is handling the Persian Gulf crisis just right; that America's allies should bear more of the costs of the mobilization against Iraq; that the United States should sell a huge amount of arms to Saudi Arabia; that Egypt's (and eventually Israel's) debts to the United States should be forgiven.
They agreed that the budget summit must and would succeed; that Medicare cannot be exempted from spending cuts; that new revenues should come from those with the greatest ability to pay. Most enthusiastically, they agreed that House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had disturbed their precious harmony by saying nasty things about the political opposition. And, in case you were in doubt, each of them said the other was a swell fellow.
Welcome to the wonderful world of bipartisanship. Democrats stand four-square behind Bush in the showdown with Saddam Hussein. Democrats are disarmed and beguiled by Bush's first Supreme Court nominee, Judge David H. Souter. Democrats go the extra mile in search of a budget agreement.
Sweet harmony is so soothing that only the churlish would seek to upset it. When such harmony breaks out six weeks before the midterm election, however, it does cause problems for some people. Those suffering the most are White House speech writers and Democratic campaign strategists.
The former are clearly struggling to invent boilerplate arguments Bush can employ on his frequent campaign excursions to the states where Republicans are challenging Democratic incumbents. They really have to reach to make the ever-helpful Democrats look like deadly enemies.
But the Democrats have the deeper problem as the issues between the parties blur or disappear. It's always harder for Democrats to mobilize their core electorate -- which is less attentive to politics -- than for the Republicans. Democrats need emotional issues, and Bush's bipartisanship is eliminating them.
After the Webster decision and the 1989 off-year elections, some Democrats believed that abortion rights would provide a rallying cry. But Bush finessed them with the Souter nomination. While the major abortion-rights organizations said Souter's silence on the subject is enough to deny him a seat on the high court, it is clear that most Democratic senators are likely to vote for the Bush nominee -- and hope he does not become the fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The Democratic backdown is even more obvious on the issues in Bush's budget-deficit summit. With the economy skirting recession and public pessimism deepening about the economic future, the stage seemed set for an old-fashioned pocketbook election. Many prominent Democrats, including Foley's deputy, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), had been sharpening the rhetoric against Bush's "tax cuts for the rich."
And yet, there came Foley, saying on "Meet the Press" that Democrats "could conceivably agree" to Bush's capital-gains tax cuts -- if the president accepted some kind of compensatory tax hike for the wealthy.
None of this may cost the Democrats much in 1990. Virtually all their House and Senate incumbents look secure. Gubernatorial elections have their own dynamics, and the Democrats appear likely to make some significant statehouse pickups.
But over time, the failure to draw sharp distinctions with the Republican president and to find issues on which to mobilize their base vote will cripple the Democrats' chances of regaining the White House. That reality is underlined by the Times Mirror voters' study released this week.
Using a sophisticated system of classifying the electorate by both values and partisanship, the study shows the continuing decline of the Democratic coalition. Older New Deal Democrats are dying off, now constituting only 7 percent of the electorate. Another group, called "the Partisan Poor," which includes many minorities, has been the most reliable part of the Democratic coalition. But in the past three years, it has become much less so. These voters see the Republicans as the party of the rich, but their growing distrust of all politicians makes them much less reliably Democratic.
Combine that with the growing skepticism the survey finds among the best-educated voting groups about the Democrats' ability to nominate able candidates, to manage the economy or to run the government, and you have a formula for long-term frustration of Democratic designs on the White House.
What all this means is that consensus on the issues -- the message of the Foley-Dole interview -- is something Republicans can easily tolerate for now, because powerful long-term political and demographic forces are weakening the Democrats.
For the Democrats, however, consensus inevitably spells decline.