WASHINGTON. — Washington -- There's an accepted division of chores in American politics. Republicans protect us with strong national defense; Democrats nourish us with Social Security and Medicare. Republicans worry about our business affairs; Democrats look after our health, nutrition and welfare. Republicans control the White House; Democrats provide a warm, caring presence on Capitol Hill.
The paradigm for this snug arrangement is familiar. It's the traditional American family. "Daddy" locks the doors at night and brings home the bacon. "Mommy" worries when the kids are sick and makes sure each one gets treated fairly. This partition of authority and duty may seem an anachronism from the "Leave it to Beaver" era, but it's an apt model for today's political household.
Look at how the parties fell into their respective roles with the onset of war. "This will not stand!" the Republican president declared last summer in stern paterfamilias fashion. Democrats rarely questioned Bush's gung-ho worldview, much less advanced one of their own. After all the big decision had been made. All Mommy could do was stand at the doorway hand-wringing that Daddy might be acting too rashly.
The Democrats' paralysis ended with the first sign of truce. With the troops heading stateside, the Mommy party suddenly found itself with a familiar role to play: It pushed through a welcome-home tray of educational, medical, child care, counseling and family separation benefits faster than Harriet Nelson used to offer Cokes and cookies. However, when it came time for the victorious commander-in-chief to address Congress on what needed doing back on the home front, all George Bush mentioned was a brace of bills dealing with highways and crime -- guy stuff.
The differences between our two political parents was showcased to dazzling effect at two partisan retreats this year. A meeting of liberal Democrats in Chantilly, Virginia, on January 26 -- 10 days into the Persian Gulf war -- focused on matters close to home: health care, employment fairness, reproductive rights. A handout scolded attendees not to stray beyond the water's edge but to stay fixed on domestic social worries like "national health programs." The only buzz-phrase on the agenda that touched foreign policy was the predictable call to "cut the military budget."
Even when troops were mentioned, it was in the context of peace, not war. The biggest applause line was a pitch for national health insurance. "For too many of them," Ted Kennedy said of the expected Desert Storm casualties, "the first wound will be the last time in their lives that they ever receive adequate medical attention." Not to be outdone, Jesse Jackson instructed: "Another mark of our leadership must be that we support the troops when they are not troops."
A couple of months later the House GOP caucus held its annual retreat at a Merrill Lynch conference center near Princeton. The talk's concentration on big-world issues such as national security and global economic competition made the Democratic confab seem like a Tupperware party.
Here, the reigning mood was Bohemian Grove hard-headedness. The favorite target: welfare mothers. "Every time I read about graft in the welfare system," Edward Luttwak cracked to chortling GOP males, "I'm happy because it means that some of the money is not going for counterproductive activity." The crowd cheered at George Gilder's remark: "The only thing single parents produce is crime, drugs, violence, disease and Democrats."
More menacing to the Chantilly Democrats than the Republicans' locker-room ridicule are their recent raids into "mommy" territory. Last year President Bush converted the child care bill from a piece of liberal social legislation to yet another tax-cut initiative. This year, thanks to Lamar Alexander's education initiative, Mr. Bush has shifted the terrain from a Mondalesque push for fairness to a "Just wait 'til your Daddy gets home!" toughening of standards.
And while the Dems love to nag about Bush "priorities," their actual legislative plan for 1991 is limited to a narrow range of social issues, like parental leave and the civil-rights bill, which Democrats are now desperately selling as a woman's issue in order to deflect Mr. Bush's assault on quotas. Thanks to last fall's five-year budget deal, they can no longer make the spring budget resolution into a debate over "fairness." With few cookies in the jar, the Mommy party seems a good deal less cuddly than it used to be.
Don't underestimate the appeal of this new two-parent arrangement in American politics. By focusing on "mommy" matters, today's Democrats avoid the brutal, intraparty debate that tore at the party's soul during Vietnam. By playing down their Persian Gulf votes in the 1992 election, Democratic lawmakers hope to protect themselves from a second Bush landslide. And by playing "daddy," Republicans shift the blame for the crime and dropout statistics to the much-abused programs of the '60s. If "mommy" hadn't been so soft on welfare cheaters, the recipients would be working by now.
What do the voters get from this two-parent system of politics they seem to like so much? From "daddy" they get a well-endowed defense and a fiscal policy that never asks them to match spending with taxes. From "mommy" they get endless growth in entitlement programs with no cuts in pocket money. The composite effect of the see-who-can-spoil-'em-the-most bidding war is a family that's overdrawn its joint checking account by $2 trillion the last decade.
Voters, of course, would have it much better in the long term if the ruling duo modernized their relationship. If "daddy" started to chip in around the house, Americans might suddenly find themselves with two parties working to meet our huge home-front challenges. If "mommy" started competing more feistily at the office, we might find ourselves facing foreign policy options when we go to vote. In place of the two-parent system, we might once again know the roar and thrust of a genuine two-party rivalry.
Christopher Matthews, author of "Hardball," is Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner. This article first appeared in The New Republic.