So Much for One-Party Government


Washington. -- The pending collapse of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- you'll hear it hit the deck around Christmastime if it isn't withdrawn for retooling sooner -- is the latest example of the mythical rewards of one-party government.

When they were running against George Bush last year, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were painting in bright colors the idea of a Democratic president working with a Democratic-controlled Congress. The key to the dreaded Washington gridlock could be found in putting one party in charge, or so the argument went.

The electorate found that notion pretty appealing after four years of partisan bickering and government by veto. More than a few voters invested their franchise in the idea that Mr. Clinton and his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill might get something accomplished if they were all wearing the same label.

Well, like a lot of other things this year, that scenario hasn't panned out. What Messrs. Clinton and Gore didn't mention along the campaign trail was that their political party -- and particularly the "moderate" wing from which they emerged -- had no more sense of discipline than a pack of 5-year-olds at an ice cream parlor.

All around him, President Clinton sees Democratic members of Congress who ran ahead of his narrow 43 percent plurality last fall going their own way, party loyalty be hanged. On deficit reduction and NAFTA, on gays in the military and campaign finance reform and the coming battle over reform of the nation's health-care system, it's a cast of independent operators.

NAFTA is the issue that drove the big-city liberals away from Mr. Clinton, a circumstance he might have anticipated if he were as politically astute as some of us used to believe.

Still, you've got to light a candle for the guy. The list of congressional Democrats who've kneecapped the president in public and private is stunning. You have to wonder if, when he was running for the White House, the Arkansas governor had any idea of the runaway faithlessness inside his own party.

Certainly Clinton must be held accountable for his own listless leadership ways. But the willingness of so many Democrats to toss him on the scrap heap after eight months as head of a party that went 16 years between winning presidential elections is breathtaking. When these Democrats sit around, do they imagine how much better their political lives will be three years hence when Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., is managing the budget bill for President Dick Cheney?

Keeping track of Democratic disloyalty has become a full-time avocation, but it always pays to keep an eye on Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia.

Mr. Nunn recently was amending the defense budget to make the military policy toward gays and lesbians more restrictive than the one agreed to by the administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The senator, who masquerades as a Democrat, apparently feels he hasn't taken a big enough chunk out of President Clinton's hide on the gays-in-the-military issue, or that he hasn't spent sufficient time prostrated before the military establishment upset by opposing the use of force in the Persian Gulf two years ago.

As it happened, 24 Senate Democrats, including some Hall of Fame liberals, joined Senator Nunn in adding insult to human rights injury on the matter.

Sullen Sam is a child of his times, a Democratic politician who doesn't make a distinction between going AWOL for the weekend and deserting altogether. When he voted against the Clinton budget earlier this year, Mr. Nunn didn't go over the side quietly. No, he felt it necessary to bray in tandem with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., on the perils of the Clinton plan.

Even the preposterous Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma, the oil baron's friend, the man who lives to make sure his dusty Tulsa constituents won't have to pay more than 87 cents a gallon to gas up the family pickup, couldn't bring himself to conduct that sort of performance.

From his vantage point inside the White House and atop his 35 percent job-approval rating, Mr. Clinton must think often of the recent assessment of House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., who suggested that among Capitol Hill Democrats, a little less whining about leadership and a little more "followership" might be helpful.

C7 Steve Daley is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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