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Going Forward

What bipartisanship will look like in Washington.

11:00 PM, Nov 13, 2006 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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ELECTIONS ARE A DISTRACTION. Necessary to a democracy, but a distraction nevertheless. At least, that has been the case in America in recent months. Instead of debating important questions, such as how to extricate the nation from Iraq without leaving chaos in our wake, or how to finance the entitlements of Baby Boomers, the candidates focused on their opponents attendance at a Playboy Club, use of racy language when writing a novel and failure to obtain a fishing license many years ago, and gay escapades (Florida).

So say one bunch of pundits. Another takes a kinder view of the election process, and pronounces them a decision by serious voters that the Bush administration has gotten its comeuppance for its combination of colossal incompetence in Iraq and New Orleans with a profligacy that would turn Lyndon Johnson green with envy. Elections are a tool for turning the rascals out and Americans have shown they now how and when to wield that tool.

As they say at the shell games on the streets of New York, you pays your money and you takes your choice--of pundit. Whichever you choose, you can sigh with relief now that the politicians are made silent by their strained vocal chords, their foot soldiers are catching up on lost sleep, and the cleaners (most likely illegal immigrants) are sweeping the confetti from the floors of campaign headquarters. And the serious business of governing the nation can resume. Perhaps the several composers of "Ballad for Americans" had it right when they wrote, albeit not in reference to the recent campaign, "Out of the cheating, out of the shouting, Our song of hope is here again."

Or not, depending on the willingness of a Republican president and a Democratic-controlled Congress to work together. The early signs are not promising. Yes, President Bush did call to congratulate Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco congresswoman who will become speaker of the House of Representatives. He even offered to give the stylish millionairess tips on decorators to use in choosing new curtains for the speakers' office. And, yes, Pelosi and other Democrats say they willing to work with the White House on important issues.

But the political atmosphere is poisonous. Add to the bitter differences over Iraq lingering Democratic anger over the impeachment of Bill Clinton--and over the "stolen election" of 2000--and you don't have a prescription for harmonious rule.

Democratic control of all congressional committees means an endless round of investigations by subpoena-wielding Democratic chairman into everything from reconstruction contracts in Iraq through the planning for and execution of the war itself. Pelosi has promised to rein in the nastiest of the attack dogs, but it is not certain that she will be able to do so. I am told that Pelosi will indeed make every effort to produce a record of legislative achievement, as she is eager to avoid the charge that the first-ever woman speaker of the House presided so incompetently over the Democratic majority that her party went down to defeat in 2008 and had to take her curtains back to the less spacious office of minority leader.

SO THERE IS REASON to hope that some good might come out of divided government, as the stock market is betting. The politicians face the electorate again in 2008 and that campaign for the presidency, the House, and about one-third of the Senate is already underway. That's why both the president and Pelosi feel they have to make bipartisan noises: the country is thought to be sick of divisiveness. The president would like to leave office with more to his legacy than Iraq and Katrina, and the Democrats, for the first time in a very long time, have the burden of the responsibility that goes with power. They are familiar with the old Washington saying that it is easier to lob grenades than to catch them. Old warhorses such as Michigan's John Dingell are preparing to try to educate their colleagues that a two-year period of revenge-taking, no matter how sweet, will shorten their hold on the Congress.

Areas for compromise are readily at hand. The Democrats will use their power to push through an increase in the minimum wage, from its current level of $5.15 per hour, set in 1997, to $7.25. My guess is that the president will not uncap his veto pen to kill a move so popular that several states have already raised the minimum wage for workers. But make no mistake about the impact: a leading restauranteur tells me that the jump in the minimum wage in several states in which he operates has already led him to increase his automation budget in preparation for paring down his workforce.