Editorial: ‘Turn the Page’

Posted December 9, 2008 at 4:42pm

Facing disaster, Congress and the White House have a gratifying way of coming together across party lines to enact a rescue, and we expect that the latest one — an auto company bridge loan — will be worked out this week.

Next year, however, the White House will be in Democratic hands and so will both chambers of Congress — by wide margins. Democrats have a massive agenda, the country is in a financial crisis, and the new administration and Congressional leaders will want to act fast while their treasure of political capital is large.

Under those circumstances, will bipartisanship prevail, or will Democrats revert to the usual pattern of a party in a hurry and try to jam the opposition? At the moment, the signs actually are good. But — forgive our cynicism — we’ve seen this movie before.

The good signs begin with the promises of President-elect Barack Obama to “turn the page” from traditional partisan warfare and his early outreach, on his own and through White House Chief of Staff-designate Rahm Emanuel, to both House and Senate Republicans.

The cooperative attitude has been reciprocated, at least on the Senate side. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Obama the day after he was elected.

Obama returned the call on his cell phone and spoke with McConnell as the Minority Leader shopped at a grocery store. McConnell aides say the Senator told him he hoped Obama would govern as he campaigned — from the center — in which case Republicans would help him find common ground.

McConnell reiterated the sentiment in a Nov. 20 speech to the conservative Federalist Society.

But he also added a cautionary observation that “governing in the middle is not the first inclination of new presidents.” Instead, their first impulse usually is “to push every one of their most partisan ideas through Congress,” McConnell said. “Two things happen: They get little or nothing done and they burn whatever political capital they had.”

Next year, the partisan temptation will be all the greater among Democrats because they have such big margins in both chambers.

House majorities habitually treat the minority with near-contempt, and we see nothing in the record to suggest that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will act any differently with a 79-vote margin than she did with 59. Or than Republicans did when they had big majorities.

The founders made the Senate a brake on House impulsiveness, but now Democrats are very close to a filibuster-proof majority, and their temptation will be to reach out just far enough to pull in two or three Republicans to work their will.

Two years ago, when Democrats first took control of Congress, their leaders, President George W. Bush and GOP leaders all declared that the message of voters was clear: Stop fighting and get things done. Within weeks, filibusters were back as the order of the day, almost every day, and Congress got things done only amid crisis. Now, it’s time to really “turn the page.”