Culture of Booing

Posted January 25, 2005 at 4:36pm

It’s a sad commentary on what’s become of American politics: Presidential inaugurals are supposed to be celebrations of American democracy at its best, but when Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) arrived for President Bush’s swearing-in last week and his image appeared on the Jumbotron facing the inaugural crowd, he was booed by perhaps a fifth of the attending throng.

Presumably, Bush had no idea what his supporters were doing before he took his place on the podium. We hope he’d be embarrassed by their tackiness. But the incident is more evidence yet of his failure to fulfill his 2000 campaign promise to “restore civility” to political discourse in America. In no way is the climate of booing the president’s fault alone; Democrats in the 2004 campaign were every bit as abusive toward him as his supporters were toward Kerry. Still, it’s the president’s business to set a tone, and the booing was only the most egregious example on Jan. 20.

Given the bitterness of last year’s campaign, we were disappointed that the president had no kind word to say about his opponent in his inaugural address. Contrast this to 2000, when he did. “As I begin,” he said, “I thank President Clinton for his service to our nation. And I thank Vice President Gore for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.” In this year’s speech, soaring in its rhetoric and ambition, there was just one paragraph devoted to national unity — and most of it amounted to an assertion that the nation’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, demonstrated that the country is united when it counts.

Bush acknowledged in just one sentence in the speech that “we have known divisions which must be healed to move forward in great purposes” and promised “I will strive to heal them.” It is a fact that partisan rivalry has blocked much of Bush’s domestic agenda, and it threatens to do so this year with Social Security and tax reform. Republicans are hoping that the defeat of former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) will break the logjam, but early statements from his successor, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), cannot be encouraging.

The most dire threat facing the incoming Congress is the Senate Democrats’ vow to persist in filibustering appeals court nominees they deem “extremist” and the Republican leadership’s apparent plan to employ the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules by simple majority vote to eliminate the filibuster for nominations. Democrats say they will then block all business from being done.

The basic logic behind the Democrats’ pre-2004 tactics — that Bush lacked a popular mandate for conservative judges — has been eroded by the last election. That argues for restraint on their part in employing the filibuster. At the same time, we’d hope that Bush’s promise to heal divisions is not empty. That requires reaching out — and inspiring his party in Congress to do so, too.