Looking Ahead to 'Crossing the Divide'

A window of opportunity exists for the White House and Congress to find common ground. NPR News explores the pros and cons of bipartisanship in Washington in an upcoming series called "Crossing the Divide."

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Beginning tomorrow, a special series on all NPR news broadcasts, crossing the divide.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm a uniter, not a divider.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Republican, California): Partnership, not partisanship.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): Disagree without being disagreeable to each other.

SIMON: Can politicians unite for the common good? It's easy to go to extremes, but much harder to find a way to the middle. Crossing the divide, all next week on NPR.

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Crossing the Divide: An NPR Series

President George Bush shakes hands with new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California

hide captionPresident George Bush shakes hands with new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, Nov. 9, 2006.

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

The elections of November 2006 brought Democrats to majorities in Congress, forcing President Bush to share power in Washington and pay attention to his opposition in ways he did not in the first six years of his presidency

The president immediately pledged to be as bipartisan as possible.

The new majorities also changed life on Capitol Hill, where the floor bosses of the two parties in both chambers have swapped roles, and where all the committees are suddenly under new management. In many cases, especially in the House, the agendas of the new chairmen are almost 180 degrees different from those of their Republican predecessors.

The Democrats immediately pledged to be as bipartisan as possible.

Of course, the Democrats in the House immediately passed a flurry of their own preferred bills while allowing no Republican amendments. And President Bush just as immediately announced a new build-up of troops in Iraq that he knew would be opposed by the vast majority of Democrats in Congress.

So what is bipartisanship? Majorities always give it lip service because they know they should, and because they know they need some of it to succeed. Minorities always ask for it because it's their only access to a share of power.

In one sense, true or pure bipartisanship is impossible in a political system almost entirely organized around partisanship — the rivalry of major parties. It is akin to asking for agreement between two sets of lawyers hired to be adversaries. Arguing is what they do, and they are paid to insist on their viewpoint.

But in another sense, the American political system is about satisfying the majority without making life too onerous for the minority. We expect all sides in any controversy to state their principles and serve their interests, but we also ask them to respect the need for resolution in the end. The more important the issue, the more important it is to reach that resolution.

Everyone who enters the public arena soon learns that the struggle is not the end product. The struggle is a means. In the end, all parties have to find some means of give and take. They have to cross the space that divides them.

This takes place in a variety of ways. We are familiar with the process because it is so familiar. Nothing is more characteristic of our daily lives than conflict with other human beings. This goes for interaction between individuals and also for the friction between groups, large or small.

But overcoming conflict is also basic. It is fundamental to civilization and social evolution. It enables our lives to be something more than a daily struggle to survive.

Dealing with conflict at all levels — from the most primitive to the most sophisticated — is a common experience. Sometimes we resolve conflict with a show of will or the use of force. But most of the time, we find a way of weighing the values and making some kind of deal.

Life in a democracy requires debating issues and taking votes. But it also requires a willingness to commit to something else: an investment in give and take. In a democracy, no one can expect to call all the shots all the time — and no one should want to. Understanding contrary positions is both a talent and a learned skill. The best leaders value their principles and pursue them, but always with the knowledge that at some point, you have to make the deal. You have to open your eyes and ears to the other side. You have to cross the divide.

Over the course of the next week, NPR News will present a special series of reports across all of its news programs. Crossing the Divide will explore the pros and cons of bipartisanship in Washington, and feature examples of compromise and cooperation from politics, business and everyday life in America. With the 2008 presidential election looming, a small window of opportunity exists for the White House and Congress to find common ground and accomplish some goals for the American people. But what's the best way to do it?

Was there a time when Americans got along better, or did we get that idea from watching old movies? Is there still a spirit of national inspiration that is shared by our public servants, regardless of party or ideology? Do our national symbols help bring us together?

We will hear from some of our most experienced correspondents and some of our newest. We will hear about how things are changing in Washington and in state capitals. We also will hear from Americans who have found their own ways around conflicts and difference.

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