A House Divided: The Uncivil War in Washington Continues Unabated

President Trump last Tuesday stood in the well of the House of Representatives, delivering an address to a Joint Session of Congress that was very favorably reviewed by nearly 60 percent of Americans, according to a CNN/ORC poll.

Democrats on Capitol Hill were taken aback that Trump acquitted himself so presidentially in his first speech before Congress. That included, for instance, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, who could only bring himself to grudgingly concede that Trump delivered “a well-scripted, well-rehearsed presentation.”

But it did not take long for Democrats to resume the resistance to Trump they began the day after his improbable election as the nation’s 45th president.

So it followed last Wednesday, as the night the day, that the loyal opposition opened up a fresh line of attack against the Republican in the White House — demanding the resignation of his attorney general, former Sen. Jeff Sessions, amid accusations that he was not entirely forthcoming about meetings he had last summer with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

“For the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign,” said Chuck Schumer, Senate Democratic leader. “Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country,” echoed Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic leader.

Such is the Uncivil War in the nation’s capital. And while it reached its nadir during the depths of last year’s presidential election, it actually began 40 years before Trump’s ascent to the highest office in the land.

The spark that would set Washington ablaze was a 1976 memo to President-elect Jimmy Carter written by Patrick Caddell, a Harvard-educated, whiz-kid pollster who helped the former Georgia governor come from next to nowhere to win the presidency.

“It is my thesis,” wrote Caddell, in his 62-page treatise titled “Initial Working Paper on Political Strategy,” that “governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.” “Excellent,” Carter responded. And, with that, the so-called “permanent campaign” was conceived.

No longer would there be post-election timeout periods during which first-term presidents were about the people’s business; about steering the ship of state. Instead, every first-term- (and one-and-done-term-) president from Carter to Obama would spend much of his first (or only) four years in the White House in campaign mode, with an eye toward reelection.

So it was with Carter, who blurred the lines between campaigning and governing to the point that the two were indistinguishable during his presidency. Ironically, that came back to bite the Democrat when he stood for reelection in 1980.

As historian Douglas Brinkley observed, in his 1998 tome “The Unfinished Presidency,” “Having gone four years without projecting a unifying vision or instituting a sweeping program like FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, JFK’s New Frontier, or LBJ’s Great Society, Carter was judged inept and uninspiring, and voters rejected him in no uncertain terms.”

Yet, Carter did not go gently into involuntary retirement from the presidency. He ran a decidedly negative, unbecoming and un-presidential campaign against his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan. It would be the template for future Democratic presidential campaigns.

Indeed, Carter thought no invective aimed at Reagan beneath the dignity of the President of the United States; no attack against the Republican too scurrilous.

Reagan was “disturbing,” said Carter. He was “belligerent.” He was “extremely dangerous.” The Republican’s economic policies would “destroy this nation,” Carter warned. His America would “be separated — black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South, rural from urban.” Reagan “would lead our country toward war.”

The 1980 presidential election ushered in the era of incivility between Democrats and Republicans that continues four decades later.

It has led to the toxic relations we see between presidents and the opposition party on Capitol Hill. It has radicalized activist groups on both the left and right. And it has divided everyday Americans by color — red or blue.

That was the political maelstrom that awaited Reagan after he took his oath of office as the nation’s 40th president. The permanent campaign Carter began was inherited by Democratic leaders in Congress who worked in conjunction with Democratic activist groups to resist Reagan by every means possible.

The Republican overcame his opposition, winning two terms in the White House and leaving office with the highest approval since Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he suffered one stinging defeat during his presidency that pushed the Uncivil War in Washington to a point of no return.

That would be the Democrat-orchestrated rejection in 1987 of Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork to replace Lewis Powell on the U.S. Supreme Court. In a withering denunciation of Reagan’s nominee on the Senate floor, Sen. Ted Kennedy warned that “Robert Bork’s America” would be a dystopian land.

“Women would be forced into back-alley abortions,” warned Kennedy, “blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution (and) writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government…”

The Kennedy Democrats celebrated Bork’s defeat. Yet it would prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. Because they introduced a tactic that eventually would do as much damage to their own party as to the GOP — the “politics of personal destruction.”

Democrats unabashedly embraced the tactic in 1989 when Reagan’s successor, President George Herbert Walker Bush, nominated John Tower, former chairman of the Senate armed services committee, to be his secretary of defense.

Tower was accused of hard drinking and womanizing, the result of which was that Bush’s cabinet nominee became the first in 30 years to be denied Senate confirmation.

Then came the mother of all confirmation battles, when Bush in 1991 nominated Judge Clarence Thomas to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall.

“We’re going to Bork him,“ vowed feminist lawyer Florynce Kennedy, during a conference of the National Organization of Women. ”We need to kill him politically.”

And the “Borking” of Thomas almost succeeded after a confidential Senate Judiciary Committee document was leaked to a National Public Radio reporter which included the un-redacted name of a woman who made sexual harassment allegations against Bush’s Supreme Court nominee.

Thomas ultimate won Senate confirmation, but not before suffering through what he termed “a high tech lynching.”

But as the call, so the echo. When Democrats regained the White House in 1993 with Bill Clinton’s inauguration as the third-youngest president in U.S. history, the Republican opposition deployed the same tactic Democrats used against Reagan then Bush.

They obstructed passage of President Clinton’s legislative agenda. They were complicit in the withdrawal of five of the Democrat’s cabinet nominees. And they gave no quarter to Mr. Clinton on a personal level, nor his wife, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Republicans in 1993 defeated what President Clinton hoped would be the signature achievement of his first-term — enactment of universal health care. Then they followed up their successful legislative battle by turning Democrats out of power on Capitol Hill in 1994, seizing control of both the upper and lower chambers of Congress for the first time in four decades.

The historic defeat the party of Clinton suffered actually proved a blessing in disguise for the Democratic president. He embraced a strategy of “triangulation,” which was laid out by political consultant Dick Morris with an eye toward Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.

In his 2002 book, “Power Plays,” Morris explained, “The idea behind triangulation is to work hard to solve the problems that motivate the other party’s voters, so as to defang them politically.”

So it was that Clinton co-opted two major pieces of Republican legislative proposals he originally opposed — welfare reform and a balanced federal budget. He rode those issues to a second term in the Oval Office.

It was during 1996 presidential election that the American people witnessed a moment of genuine civility from one contender for the White House to another. It was during the acceptance speech of Republican Party presidential nominee Bob Dole at his party’s national convention, when he said of Clinton “he is my opponent; not my enemy.”

Alas, not many of Dole’s fellow Republicans shared his magnanimity. For after Clinton’s re-election Republicans on Capitol Hill and allied activist groups — which Hillary Clinton famously characterized as a “vast right-wing conspiracy — were mission driven to destroy President Clinton politically.

That’s how an investigation by independent counsel Ken Starr of real estate investments by the Clintons before Mr. Clinton became president transmogrified into an inquiry into the president’s extramarital dalliance with a White House intern. Republicans managed to parlay Starr’s inquisition into Clinton’s impeachment — the first time a president suffered that ignominy in 130 years.

Clinton survived his impeachment, but the extreme enmity between Democrats and Republicans carried over to the 2000 presidential election, the closest in U.S. history. Texas Governor George W. Bush narrowly won his matchup with Vice President Al Gore, the outcome of which was disputed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ratified the Republican’s victory in a 5–4 decision.

Bush might very well have enjoyed a more decisive victory were it not for the controversial role television news networks played on election night, when NBC News at 7:50 p.m. EST erroneously declared Gore the winner in Florida, before polls closed in the Florida Panhandle, which is in a later time zone than the rest of the Sunshine State.

NBC’s premature call — followed by similarly premature calls by ABC, CBS and CNN — dampened voting in the preponderantly Republican Panhandle. Had the networks not blown it, Bush would have won Florida without dispute.

Yet, the egregious failings of the TV news networks in the 2000 presidential election did not stop CBS News from courting controversy during the 2004 election when anchorman Dan Rather reported that the network had obtained authenticated documents proving that President Bush had shirked his National Guard duties in the 1960s and 1970s.

Two weeks after Rather dropped his bombshell on Bush, the anchor apologized for his fake news story, explaining that CBS could “no longer vouch for (the) authenticity” of the documents used to discredit the Republican. Bush went on to win a second term in the Oval Office a little more than a month later.

Barack Obama followed Bush into the White House after the Democrat’s historic election as the nation’s first black president. He enjoyed the support of not only nearly 90 percent of the Democratic faithful, but also better than 40 percent of the Republican rank and file.

It seemed Obama just might prove himself worthy of the seeming ubiquitous posters with the word “HOPE” emblazoned beneath his Warhol-esqe image. It seemed he might be the president to fulfill the promise made by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to be “a uniter, not a divider.” It seemed that he just might be the chosen one who, at long last, would bring an end to the Uncivil War between Democrats and Republicans.

Alas, it was not to be. Because President Obama suffered the tragic flaw that has been throughout history the undoing of the high and mighty — hubris. Indeed, his words spoke bipartisanship, but his decidedly partisan actions spoke louder.

As when he commanded Democratic majorities in the Senate and House to pass the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act with but three Republican votes and the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act with not even one Republican vote.

New York Senator Charles Schumer in 2014 acknowledged that he and his fellow Democrats made an impolitic mistake when they passed both the stimulus and Obamacare with no buy-in from the GOP, ensuring the Uncivil War continued on Obama’s watch.

“Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them,” Schumer said, in a moment of clarity. “We took their mandate and put all our focus on the wrong problem — health care reform.”

So it was that, by the time Obama surrendered the reins of power to Donald Trump this past January, Democrats had lost ground by every meaningful measure. In 2017, there not only is a Republican in the White House and Republican majorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the GOP also controls the governorships of 33 states, while boasting majorities of both chambers of 32 state legislatures.

If ever there was a time for Democrats to sue for peace in Washington and in the state capitals it is now.

But, instead, Democrats have doubled down on the permanent campaign strategy first adopted by Jimmy Carter 40 years ago. They have ratcheted up the tactics used to decapitate Robert Bork 30 years ago. And they have escalated the Uncivil War between Democrats and Republicans to a level of hostility unsurpassed in the history of our Republic.

America needs a president cut from the same star-spangled cloth as Abraham Lincoln for such a time as this.

A president “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” A president who “will bind up the nation’s wounds.” And a president who “will do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves.”

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Joseph Perkins

Pundit. Former White House staff member. Former Wall Street Journal opinion writer.