Did Newt Invent Partisanship? The Times Thinks So

Who's to blame for excessive partisanship in D.C.? White House reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg points to "Gingrich, a veteran - and, some would say, the architect - of the hard-edged 90s." But what of the Clinton administration and liberal attacks on Robert Bork & Clarence Thomas?

The Times seems to think there was no such thing as partisanship in Washington, D.C. until conservative Republicans came around in the 1990s to invent it. White House reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg's front-page Sunday Week in Review story, "Cutting the President Slack Is So Old School," is another example of that ideological blindness, impying that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich personally invented partisanship.

That requires ignoring Bill Clinton's "war room," his administration's persecution of the White House Travel Office, and before that, the personal attacks made by liberal interest groups on conservative Republican Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.Which is just whatStolberg does:

....the concept of the "loyal opposition" came to mean that a president, especially a new one elected by comfortable majority, could expect cooperation from the other side, in deference to the will of the voters. But in the partisan politics of recent decades, another view developed, advanced by Congressional leaders like Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, that the minority party has the right, even obligation, to stick to its ideological principles.

Some longtime Washington power-brokers are uncomfortable with this more partisan-based notion of loyalty. John Warner, former Republican senator from Virginia, is one.

"This president has been duly and fairly elected, no question whatsoever," Mr. Warner said, "and he must be given the opportunity to exercise leadership of his own choosing consistent with the will of the people who put him in office. That's not meant that we all stand there like a bunch of pigeons on the roof, but let's try to give him the benefit of the doubt for a reasonable period of time."

Sen. John Warner was one of Stolberg's favorite Republicans, no doubt because he so often sided with Democrats. Here's what she wrote in a May 2004 profile, using Warner's "willingness to speak his mind" as code for his opposition to Republicans and Republicancauses:

In the Senate, Mr. Warner has demonstrated a willingness to speak his mind. In 2002 he helped orchestrate the ouster of Senator Trent Lott, the former Republican leader, over racially charged remarks. He describes himself as 'quite loyal to the president of the United States,' but he was willing to stand with Democrats this year when they fought for an extension of the ban on assault weapons, over Mr. Bush's objections. Democrats generally give Senator Warner high marks.

In her most recent story, Stolberg made do with a brief paragraph on an example of Democratic intransigence before returning to "hard-edged" Gingrich.

Republicans haven't cornered the market for blocking presidential initiatives. Democrats were so successful at filibustering Mr. Bush's judicial nominees that their Senate leader, Tom Daschle, was labeled "an obstructionist" and lost his seat in 2004.

Today it is the Republicans who find themselves accused of obstructionism. Mr. Gingrich, a veteran - and, some would say, the architect - of the hard-edged 90s, has emerged as a mentor to the current Republican House minority, in particular Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House minority whip whose efforts ensured that not a single House Republican voted for Mr. Obama's stimulus bill.

Stolberg rang up one of the Times' favorite liberal sources, professor Robert Dallek, which the paper can always rely on for an anti-Bush or pro-Democrat quote. Stolberg concluded by quoting the sainted Warner.

But opposition, or obstructionism, can be a risky game. Robert Dallek, a biographer of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, suggested that cooperating with a popular new president can benefit the party out of power. For instance, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Democratic leaders like Johnson and Sam Rayburn stressed the virtues of bipartisanship, fearing that "if they caused Eisenhower grief, the party would pay a price for it," Mr. Dallek said.

The stimulus vote, of course, is not the final word on the Obama presidency; the president will go to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress. On Thursday he will submit his first budget proposal, which the White House says will include detailed initiatives on energy and health care. Mr. Obama has said he hopes his attempts to bring Republicans on board will pay off in the future. Mr. Warner, for one, is trying to be optimistic that the loyal opposition is not gone for good.

"Tomorrow's another day," he said. "Let's hope we can find common ground."