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Why Washington's Harmony May Dissolve Into Dissonance

There's lots of sweetness and light in Washington these days. Newt Gingrich is listening to Jesse Jackson; President Clinton is taking tea with Congress; everybody's talking about mutual agendas and cooperation.

Next thing you know D.C. will have a restaurant named "Planet Bipartisan."

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Can this comity last, long-term? Probably not. For one thing, a backlash is already starting. Top figures in both parties now grumble that political argument is good. Lack of same, some say, made North Korea everything it is today.

And the calm may reflect caution as much as new-found fellowship. Neither party feels strong enough to foist its agenda on the other. Mr. Clinton and Congress are like bike racers, circling slowly while waiting to see if the other guy is going to try a sprint to the finish.

But even if it ends soon, something lasting may come from the current harmony. Perhaps, say some experts, the nation's leaders will see that one big problem is their tone, not their differences.

"It's the level of acrimony that has made the process much worse," says Jon Bond, a political scientist at Texas A&M in College Station. "There used to be norms that allowed policymakers to disagree without being disagreeable."

When Sam Rayburn (D) of Texas was Speaker of the House (most of the period between 1940 and 1961), conservatives and liberals could have principled disagreements over policy unmarked by personal attacks. Leaders of both parties would gather in Rayburn's Capitol hideaway office for after-hours socializing.

Yet nowadays many members of Congress say they largely see their counterparts from the other party only in committee rooms or legislative chambers. And attacks have become more personal. Witness the bitter way House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his main antagonist, Rep. David Bonior (D) of Michigan, talk about each other.

"Now [politicians] can be disagreeable without even disagreeing," notes Mr. Bond.

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The latest effort to build better-working Washington relationships came with this week's trip to Capitol Hill by the president. Clinton and GOP congressional leaders agreed on five priorities where they hope to make progress: education proposals, tax cuts, juvenile-justice measures, and incentives for businesses to hire welfare recipients.

There is common ground between the White House and Capitol Hill on some of these items. Yet on others the policy differences remain large, and the two sides seemed to be simply agreeing that a problem exists. On education, for instance, many Republicans have resisted Clinton's call for national standards as unwarranted federal intrusion on a local prerogative.

As to progress on these items, "I'll believe it when I see it," says Sarah Binder, a Brookings Institution scholar of Congress. "It seemed to me they were forcibly reading from the same script."

In fact, some fashionable party activists are already attacking the notion of bipartisan fellowship. The problem, they say, isn't so much that Democrats and Republicans are trying to work together. It's that somehow they seem to be behaving as if argument isn't legitimate, and as if politics is bad.

As humorist Christopher Buckley put it in a recent opinion piece, "trying to make politics into sweetness and light is like fitting wings on a pig: You and the pig look ridiculous, and the pig still isn't going to fly."

ON the conservative side, former Education Secretary William Bennett now argues that Republicans in Congress have taken Mr. Clinton's reelection too hard and are now acting timid and uncertain. "The faithful are paralyzed by ennui and the party is foundering," he wrote in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard.

Meanwhile, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a liberal stalwart and coiner of the phrase "vital center," has griped in the on-line journal Slate about Clinton's passivity. "No great president was a middle-of-the-roader," he writes.

In a country as big and varied as the United States there is little real national consensus on anything but broad principles, according to Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley. Thus, battle may be needed if federal policy is to progress.

But right now neither side sees an advantage in open political warfare. The voters are tired of division for division's sake, and, in any case, neither the White House nor Congress currently represents a dominant political power center. Evenly matched, they're opting for cooperation, however warily. And some initiatives may well come from it. "American politics only moves by incremental change," says Ms. Binder of Brookings. "And incremental change is made in the middle, not by polarized coalitions."

Even if Washington's tone remains civil, its balance of power is unlikely to remain even, however. Consider just the swings of the past few years: in 1992, a newly elected Clinton dominated the national scene. Two years later saw the election of the GOP Congress. Now Clinton is once again the comeback kid.

Struggle, conflict, and eventual compromise is the American way, note many political scientists. Only in brief periods - such as FDR's first 100 days - does one end of Pennsylvania Avenue dominate national policy.

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