Constant bickering: It is how Americans decide

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 5, 2005

How long will the bitter partisan polarization that has gripped the U.S. last? Will we remain, forever, two nations - one red and one blue?

No. Partisanship is the order of the day, but its days are numbered. American political cycles have alternated between times of intense, polarized debate and bipartisan consensus.

We swing back and forth as we confront new problems and want the parties to flesh out our options.

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In the ’30s isolationism and internationalism clashed, but Pearl Harbor crystallized a consensus in favor of war and an active foreign policy. In the late ’40s, containment of Russia battled with the McCarthy-McArthur focus on rolling back communism. Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson embodied national consensus.

Vietnam and the upheavals of civil rights and Watergate shattered the consensus. It took Ronald Reagan to shape a new synthesis and move to cut taxes and strengthen American determination abroad.

The recession of ’91 led to a battle between Clinton liberalism and the Gingrich Revolution. After the public had heard enough, it turned to consensus again, which catalyzed Clinton’s strategy on welfare reform, crime and the deficit.

Now we are in the post-9/11 era. We face new challenges and problems in battling terror and finding the right balance between protecting our homeland and our civil liberties.

Socially, gay marriage and genetic engineering rivet our attention. We look to the left and right to articulate their solutions, explain our options and try their policies.

We use our political process to probe alternative policies. And we settle our arguments on the partisan playing field and come together around common solutions. But woe to the politician who wants to debate when the nation wants consensus.

And woe also to the candidate who seeks consensus when the nation calls for debate. Nixon in ’60, Ford in ’76 and Bush in ’92 all fell because they did not realize that they were in an era that demanded activist debate rather than bipartisan consensus.

Over the next four years, we will likely see an increasing coming together of our partisan factions as experience teaches us the possibilities and the limits of intervention to prevent terrorism, and we settle on social policies that mirror our values.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. E-mail Morris at