The secret plan to finance the Nicaraguan rebels with the proceeds of arms sales to the Islamic regime in Iran is a handy proxy for the Iraq war, which Gates had nothing to do with. Both situations involve allegations of lying to the public and to Congress, bungled intelligence, and unresolved questions of responsibility.
But if the debate on Iraq echoes the passion of those times, the peaceful end to one aspect of that earlier scandal probably won't get mentioned.
In the spring of 1988, Congress faced a choice about continuing to fund the Contras, who were seeking a cease-fire with Nicaragua's Marxist regime and were trying to evolve from a military force into a political one. The House had repeatedly turned down Reagan administration requests for military aid to the Contras, and the political incentives for the Democrats were clear -- the GOP presidential candidate, Vice President Bush, was mixed up in the scandal.
But two weeks after prosecutors indicted two Reagan aides, Col. Oliver North and Adm. John Poindexter, for lying to Congress, the House Democratic leadership teamed up with Republicans to approve $48 million in nonmilitary aid to the Contras, money that was used to finance the rebels' demobilization. The Contras joined a political effort to remake the country, and less than two years later they were a crucial part of a right-wing coalition that swept the Marxist government from power in an election.
The House Democratic whip at the time, Tony Coelho of California, says that although it's hard to imagine reaching a similar compromise on Iraq, the Contra deal was in keeping with the baseline of bipartisanship that reigned in Congress back then. Coelho persuaded liberal Democrats to reverse themselves and approve funding for the Contras.
His partner in the effort was Minority Whip Dick Cheney, R-Wyo., a hard-line supporter of arming the rebels. Cheney was the personal guarantor that the administration would keep its promise, after years of deceit about Nicaragua, and his word was good enough for the Democratic leadership.
Coelho said that his trust of Cheney was grounded in a hard-edged reality -- Republicans, with only 177 House members and 45 senators, had to keep their promises if they expected to have any role in the Democratic Congress. "It wasn't about being nice and collegial," said Coelho, who was never considered a naif in the exercise of power. "Bipartisanship was what made sense."
To Coelho and many other congressional veterans of that earlier time, it was the absence of bipartisanship during the current period of one-party rule that prevented Bush from achieving many of his stated goals on Social Security, tax reform, and immigration.
That is also the view of former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who was the Democratic leader during the brief time from 2001 to 2002 that his party held a Senate majority. Although Iraq dominated the recent election, "voters want a Congress that can get things done, and increasingly, they saw a Congress that couldn't get things done," he said.
With the Gates nomination and the primacy of the Iraq commission co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, political commentators are taking bets on whether personnel from the administration of Bush I will somehow turn Bush II into a moderate. The more likely prospect, according to Daschle, is that the reality of doing business with a Democratic Congress will force him toward compromise.
By most accounts, the recent high-water mark for bipartisanship in Congress was during the four-year presidency of the senior Bush, when Democrats had 55 seats in the Senate and a 43-seat majority in the House.
Bush 41 and Richard Nixon were the only elected presidents to spend their entire terms with Congress held by the opposition, and what history regards as the signature achievements of Bush's presidency were bipartisan in nature. The four most important pieces of legislation were:
- Settling the savings and loan crisis, which threatened to cripple the banking system.
- Implementing the 1990 budget deal, which did more to reduce the surging deficit than any action before or since.
- Overhauling the Clean Air Act, which made conservation compatible with market principles.
- Enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act, which extended civil rights and equal access to 40 million Americans.
Of course, the hallmarks of that bipartisan record -- particularly the 1990 budget deal -- contained the seeds of Bush's re-election defeat in 1992. Conservatives deserted Bush partly because of his cooperation with Democrats, who traded budget limits for tax increases, and then united in 1994 to vote out a Democratic majority that was seen as too free with taxpayer money.
Just as the current President Bush's foreign policy in many ways represents a repudiation of his father's multilateralism, Bush 43's governing style is a rejection of a bipartisan approach that yielded centrist achievements.
One choice facing Bush now is whether bipartisan achievements are worth pursuing.
"There is no question in my mind" that Bush can reach bipartisan compromises with a Democratic Congress, Daschle said. "The question is whether he wants to."
Clayton Yeutter was Agriculture secretary under Bush 41 and was an unabashed advocate of bipartisanship, whether in a united or divided government. He demurs on the question of whether Republicans' partisan approach to governing after 1995 was a miscalculation. "I have always operated on the basis that nothing of significance will be accomplished without bipartisan support," Yeutter said.
His favorite example was the 1990 farm bill, about which a team of administration officials was in almost daily contact with Democratic lawmakers and staffers. "The assumption, which I think was never spoken, was that one side would not try to show up the other in public," Yeutter said.
In the days before the recent election, it was common to hear people speculating that divided government could be a blessing for Bush, because it would force him to abandon his partisan tendencies and give him more room to compromise. That view is "hogwash," according to Nick Calio, who handled congressional affairs under both Bush presidents.
Calio predicts that this White House will adjust to the new Democratic reality and find ways to advance its agenda, but he declares, "The idea that it is somehow easier to get things done, in any way, isn't true."
Many commentators have mentioned that Bush, when faced with divided government as governor of Texas, cut many deals with the Democratic Legislature. But the powers of Texas's governor are among the weakest in the country, and Bush was dealing with a fairly conservative Democrat presiding over the Senate, Bob Bullock.
In his first press conference after the recent election, Bush shrugged off a question posed by a Texas reporter, who asked, "Does Nancy Pelosi look much like Bob Bullock to you?" The reference was to how much more liberal than Bullock is the woman likely to become House speaker.
Dan Rostenkowski was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee for 14 years, and he considers the 12 of them under Republican presidents to be the most successful. In an interview, Rostenkowski recalled that committee life included retreats for members from both sides of the aisle and anniversary parties for Republican members and staffers.
"I wouldn't vote out a bill unless it had at least six Republican members," he said. Rostenkowski said his last two years, under a Democratic president, weren't as productive because "things were already heading in a partisan direction."
George Mitchell, who was Senate majority leader throughout Bush 41's presidency, told National Journal that the 2008 presidential race would be the greatest challenge to restoring some bipartisanship in the next two years. Mitchell said that although there was more cooperation during the senior Bush's presidency than during the administrations of others he had worked with, "in the last year to year and a half, that really started to break down."
Even when there is no practical alternative to bipartisanship, Mitchell said, politics is always an alternative to legislating.