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Bipartisanship is needed but won't happen if not politically expedient

WASHINGTON — This city is abuzz these days with talk of bipartisanship and the need to meet an increasing public demand for civility in a Congress that seems pretty much dedicated to the opposite. But don't expect that to happen anytime soon or to be lasting if it does, plagued as the nation is with a shortage of statesmen.

The main ingredient of bipartisanship is political advantage, at least in today's variety. If it is more advantageous to a candidate or his party not to reach out to opponents, it won't happen.

The days when a coalition of northern Democrats and Republicans for the good of the nation would adopt a civil rights bill that finally freed African Americans from the chains of de facto segregation are a distant memory, replaced by the rancor and selfishness of lawmakers dedicated to special interests and extreme ideologies. Self-preservation is the overriding concern of the American politician, and if that can't be furthered by bipartisanship, forget about it.

That point of view seems pretty cynical, doesn't it? Perhaps it would have been when there were still men and women in Congress willing to put aside their differences for the common good. President Barack Obama asked Republicans to work with him on major issues both during his State of the Union speech and then at a meeting of GOP lawmakers in Baltimore. He received tepid response on both occasions, although in the latter, the debate, while sharp and spirited, was civil.

In his State of the Union speech, maybe he would have been more convincing in his appeal for collegiality had he turned to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sat directly behind him as he spoke, and made the same argument. Pelosi's partisanship is notorious. The truth is that the leaders of both parties in both chambers see very little reason to do things differently. Certainly the Republicans, looking to cut the Democratic majority in the fall elections, believe that recent gains in off-year balloting and a decline in the president's national standing are based on public uneasiness about the direction of the White House.

Why, then, should Republicans suddenly help him adopt such major initiatives as health care reform, for which they will receive little credit in November and perhaps a lot of blame?

The president's focus on the restoration of civility has come after some recent hard knocks, including the distinct possibility that his chief major initiative, health care, may not be achievable, certainly not in the form of the current proposals. Not long before Massachusetts decided to give the Republicans the vote needed in the Senate to conduct an effective filibuster, Obama promised that Democrats alone would adopt this far-reaching overhaul of the nation's approach to medical care.

It is utterly amazing to many observers that the president, who seemed to have such a clear mandate reached through a masterful campaign, could so utterly misread the electorate now. For instance, in 47 years of close observation of Congress, I have never seen a bill like the health care proposal in which the entire minority voted against it. How could the chief executive and his minions become so tone deaf? Did they not realize that just on the basis of practical politics alone, at least several Republicans would have broken the party line if there had been any indication that doing so would have helped them?

So the prospects for any major detente between the political parties are unlikely. Actually, their differences will become more clearly defined and polarized as the election nears. What is needed to repair a broken system is a Lyndon Johnson whose understanding of the Senate — and the House for that matter — was so keen that he was able to achieve what his martyred predecessor couldn't. Also, the leaders of both the minority Republicans and majority Democrats often put the country's interests above their own.

Where are those in Congress willing to lay it on the line when it is required, to add their weight to momentous decisions without thought of personal gain? Long gone, I guess.

E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.