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March 24, 2006

Breaking ranks

 At the Kentucky Author Forum Monday night, Sen. John McCain was asked a most interesting question by a self-described Democrat. “Why are you a Republican?” she asked, in a tone that suggested she wished he weren’t. McCain responded first by evoking the spirit of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, then by enumerating the principles of smaller government, fiscal responsibility, environmental protection and respect for civil rights. His answer implied a logical, but unasked, follow-up: So why are you a Republican? Indeed, one of my favorite pastimes during the 2004 campaign was to ask Republican supporters in what ways, other than lower taxes, the Bush agenda conformed to their perception of Republican philosophy. Very few could come up with any answer. Over the past five years, one of the most frustrating aspects of the polarization of the American political scene has been how virtually every issue eventually evolved into a partisan dispute. For example, even though the Social Security system faces a dire financial future, no one has seriously discussed how to fix it. Republicans marched in lockstep behind the Bush private account proposal — even though no one demonstrated that it would solve the Social Security financial predicament — and Democrats uniformly opposed it without offering a solution. As I have mentioned before, the Iraq War debate has been largely a partisan proposition, with politicians on both sides of the divide taking totally different positions than they did on similar matters during the Clinton years. Last month I met with a group of U of L students, one of whom asked why so few Americans feel outrage over many of the things that are going on around the world. I suggested that one explanation may very well be this partisan cast on every issue. In other words, if every debate — even those over life and death questions — appears to be a partisan contest instead of a battle of ideas, observers understandably might conclude that the debate isn’t relevant to them.  So it is in consideration of all those factors that the last few weeks are so significant. Whether it is the spirit of the season or political epiphany, more than a few Washington politicians are beginning to act like thoughtful human beings shouldering great responsibilities.  The most recent sign came from Republican U.S. senators Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) among others, who rejected the administration’s argument that President Bush had the constitutional authority to direct the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens. On the other side, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., was quickly adopted by the GOP after he resoundingly endorsed Bush’s “stay the course” plan in Iraq.  And perhaps most refreshingly, an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 90 senators and a veto-proof majority of House members voted to prohibit cruel or inhumane treatment of prisoners or detainees, and forced President Bush to accept their position. Hopefully this independent thinking will survive the season, because the recent record is pretty depressing. Congressional Democrats have been fairly criticized for neglecting their oversight duties during the buildup to the Iraq invasion in 2003. They didn’t question the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, and many of them voted to authorize Bush to go to war. But isn’t it just as fair to ask where the Republicans were? While Democrats were about evenly split over the case for using force in Iraq, only one Republican senator, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, voted against the war authorization. Did every single other Republican truly believe what the White House was saying about WMDs, or did their partisan loyalties get their tongues?  At least Sen. Russ Feingold. D.-Wis., had the courage to vote against the original Patriot Act, because of several controversial provisions. Not one senator from the Republican Party, which historically has opposed government intrusion into people’s lives, joined him in objecting. (Times are truly changing; four Republicans voted last week to filibuster the renewal of the controversial legislation.) Republicans love to argue that Democrats are being partisan obstructionists when they collectively oppose one of Bush’s agenda items. Is the sincerity of the Republicans’ unanimous support any less suspect?  There is no question that there are major differences between the two political parties. Perhaps now more than ever, there are critical questions over the distribution of wealth and power in America, the role of our country in the world, and the role of government in education, health care and environmental protection. But as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman have demonstrated, there is reason to believe that a nonpartisan perspective can prevail, and then if we are polarized over an important issue, it will be for much better reasons than whether we’re blue or red. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays or whatever other salutation makes you feel comfortable and respected.Contact the writer at jyarmuth@aol.com