The collapse of partisanship after the atrocities of Sept. 11 is real. President Bush needs to keep party feelings at bay. There are pressures on him to do just the opposite.
How different is the political atmosphere? Consider this conversation with a Democratic consultant, a happy warrior who loves to defeat Republicans and has no particular sympathy for the president.
Asked about his attitude toward Bush after the attack, he replied: "I actually went into church and knelt down and prayed that he'd be successful. He's ours. He's all we've got. Pray God that he's going to do what's best for our country."
This attitude runs deep among Democrats. House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt and House Speaker Dennis Hastert broke with an acrimonious past to shepherd a $40-billion anti-terror appropriation. In both houses, Democrats worked with Republicans to pass a war resolution.
Initially, Republicans hoped to ram through their own versions of both measures. Instead, they made concessions. "They could have rolled over us," said a very loyal and partisan Democratic leadership aide who resented the initial approach but appreciated the spirit of compromise.
In the Senate, where Democrats are in control and have the power to make trouble, the party's leaders have reciprocated, drawing back from a battle over Bush's missile defense system and minimizing fights over a Bush budget they plainly dislike.
Bush needs to nurture this attitude. His popularity soared after the attack because the whole country, like that prayerful Democratic consultant, wants him to succeed against terrorism. That does not mean that divisions on domestic policy have disappeared. Maintaining support for the long haul requires that Bush not grab quick victories on domestic issues where the parties are sharply at odds.
That's why it's depressing that some Republicans used the slaughter in New York and at the Pentagon -- and the economic fears that followed -- as an excuse to push a capital gains tax cut and the rest of an economic agenda they have been advocating for the past decade. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., a budget committee leader, was incredulous: "We've lost 5,000 people and now we need a capital gains tax cut? It's unconscionable that they'd even bring it up."
Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, is appalled that anyone would see his party as using the crisis to push its favorite policies. This, he told National Journal, reflected a "level of cynicism beyond anything I want to engage in."
Assume Thomas' goodwill. But then try to explain a Wall Street Journal editorial on Wednesday urging Bush to advance his whole conservative domestic agenda now because "the bloody attacks have created a unique political moment when Americans of all stars and stripes are uniting behind their president."
Drill for oil in the Arctic, the Journal insisted; speed up the tax cut -- this while the country is spending tens of billions more than anyone anticipated before this crisis -- and even insist on pushing through confirmation of conservative judges. What do judges have to do with this war? Nothing, but the Journal's editorial writers see political opportunity: "Democrats in the Senate will hesitate to carry out borkings that clearly undercut Mr. Bush's leadership." Bush, they concluded, should "use the moment to press a broad agenda that he believes is in the national interest." The Journal's editorial page has a history of speaking for important forces in the conservative movement. You can be sure that it is not alone in giving Bush this advice.
It is bad advice. It refuses to acknowledge the new political circumstances created by Sept. 11, and would be a slap in the face to every American who opposes Bush on domestic issues but desperately wants to support him in fighting terrorists.
When the president addressed the nation Thursday night, I was rooting for him and hoping he would find an approach to keep us united in what will be a long struggle. He did. In his powerful plea for national resolve, he shunned any issue that would divide Americans along partisan lines.
We have domestic disagreements that should be fought out -- but not now. The president can't help but feel a temptation to use our desire to stand with him on behalf of his domestic purposes. My prayer is that he continues to resist it.
Washington Post Writers Group