Vice President Gore says he would face two daunting challenges dealing with Congress if he becomes president: the "nearly poisonous" atmosphere of partisanship that pervades Washington and the legacy of his role as the tough guy in Clinton White House negotiations with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
But, he said in a recent interview, he is confident that his 16 years of service in the House and Senate and his understanding of the historical forces that have shaped the relationship between presidents and Congresses would help him overcome the "bitterness and hostility" that mar those dealings. "I have a lot of ideas about how to heal it," Gore said.
That there is need for healing--whether Republicans retain their narrow majorities in the House and Senate or Democrats seize what would likely be an equally narrow advantage--is evident.
As Gore noted, he was part of the Democratic majority in the late 1970s and the 1980s that fought bruising battles with Republican presidents over policies and appointments. And he was a major defender of President Clinton when a GOP Congress was attempting to impeach the president and remove him from office. Gore's own fund-raising activities have been the target of congressional investigations.
Despite this history, Gore insisted that he is ready and able to put those quarrels behind him. "A president has to become the change he wants to see in the country and bring people together," he said.
The interview with Gore was one of a number The Washington Post is conducting with major presidential candidates, examining their views of executive-congressional relations. Voter interviews strongly suggest the public has wearied of the atmosphere of partisanship pervading Washington.
As Gore pointed out at the start of the interview, the antecedents of the conflict reach far back into history and, to some extent, are embedded in the Constitution. He likened the current situation to the "nearly poisonous" atmosphere after Thomas Jefferson's election in 1800 and said that, like Jefferson, he would reach out to old political foes by "saying to the nation, 'We are all Democrats; we are all Republicans.' "
Gore blamed both parties for the "excessive partisanship" that has poisoned the relationship. He said that while the move to impeach President Richard M. Nixon was justified, he recognizes that "the spirit of conflict brought to that confrontation by Democrats was one which began a cycle."
Gore said that as part of the Congress that repeatedly, and, he said, justifiably challenged Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, "I think that as a Democrat, I need to be open to the view of many Republicans that some boundaries were crossed in the investigations of the Reagan and Bush White Houses."
When Gore was asked about his reputation among congressional Republicans for playing the "heavy" in bargaining sessions at the White House, he said: "There was never a time when President Clinton and I sat down together and I said, 'You be the good cop and I'll be the bad cop.' There was in the long negotiating process a dynamic that evolved in the room which made it easier for me to draw the lines in the sand and for the president to give them the positive alternative, to show them how to reach their goals without crossing that line."
Gore friends say that because Clinton "doesn't like to say no," it often falls to the vice president to be the hard-liner.
Gore said as president, his goal would be to "bring people together. I served eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate. I know the dynamics of each body thoroughly and well. I've served on countless conference committees and I've seen the executive-legislative dialogue in moments of high tension."
When he represented Tennessee, Gore was known as a productive legislator on both sides of the Capitol, one who had a significant impact on environmental, technology and arms control issues. "The successes of which I'm most proud," he said, "are those efforts where my role was to define a problem and a solution. . . . I asked to be on investigative subcommittees, rather than legislative subcommittees, because I wanted to identify the things that I thought needed to be done and then work with others to figure out the details of the solutions."
Gore said that approach has worked well for him, even in the climate of strained relations, in enlisting bipartisan support for some of his "reinventing government" initiatives. "I also think of the meetings that we had in the White House on Bosnia and Kosovo and the expansion of NATO, where members of Congress who could easily have dug trenches instead, . . . in some cases, they changed their opinions and in others, tempered their opposition."
Gore spoke almost nostalgically of his relationship with the late House member Joel Pritchard, a Seattle Republican, who accepted Gore's analysis in the early 1980s of the risks of Soviet and American reliance on multiple-warhead missiles and the desirability of developing smaller, single-warhead weapons. Together, Gore said, he and Pritchard had scores of small, bipartisan meetings, "and after six months of that, I had a majority of the Congress willing to support the principles that I put forward . . . and it helped change the [Reagan] administration's negotiating posture toward the goal of strategic stability and the reduction of multiple warheads."
That approach, he suggested, would be the hallmark of a Gore administration's dealings with Congress.
The Candidates and Congress
Every recent president has found that one of his most difficult challenges lies in managing his relationship with Congress. The Washington Post is interviewing the leading presidential candidates to hear their ideas for dealing with this part of the job.
Gore in His Own Words
Q. Where do things stand between the president and Congress? What environment will the next president inherit?
A. I think our nation faces a conflict between the two parties that has complicated and harmed the natural and healthy competition our founders intended between the executive and legislative branches. It is a situation not unlike the one that President Jefferson encountered in March 1801. The conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans had become nearly poisonous. It was the first presidential election that transferred the power of the executive from one party to another. There were, as I recall, 27 ballots in the House, and in the end, the only way to resolve the deadlock . . . was for Jefferson to receive help from the Federalists.
And then he made one of the most remarkable speeches in the history of the presidency, when he said, "We are all Federalists. We are all Republicans."
When I read that speech, it calls to mind the warnings issued by Madison in the Federalist Papers, when he said that extreme partisanship, which he identified by the word then in vogue, "faction," could have a malignant influence on the minds of people who ought to be working together. I think we've seen something like that in the conflict between the two parties that has solidified as the conflict between the president and the Republican leaders of Congress.
I think the next president will have the task of saying to the nation: "We are all Democrats. We are all Republicans. Let us honor the different opinions we hold and guard against the natural vulnerability we share to invest these differences with bitterness and use them as the basis for unwarranted conflict of the kind that can damage our democracy."
Q. You have many friends and allies among the Democrats. Are there people on the Republican side that conceivably could build bridges for you?
Q. Do you want to mention a couple?
A. I'll get back to you with a list.
Q. I don't need a list; just some examples.
A. Oh, John Warner's a good example. I recommended Bill Cohen to the president for defense. Oh, gee. Ted Stevens. Let me get back to you. I don't want you to cite just a couple. There are many, many more in the House.