Analysis: Bin Laden-fed unity may be short-lived

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans and Democrats heaped praise on the Obama administration’s role in killing Osama bin Laden. But few expect the goodwill to ease the path for tough domestic issues, such as taming the federal debt.

“No way,” said Mike McKenna, a veteran Republican strategist and lobbyist. Everyone is pleased by the terrorist leader’s death, he said, “but it provides zero additional credibility on debt and deficit issues” for President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.

Prominent Democrats agreed. Most GOP leaders and presidential hopefuls were gracious in crediting Obama for bin Laden’s death, said Matt Bennett, vice president of the Democratic-oriented group Third Way. “But I don’t think it’s going to have an impact on the domestic debates,” he said. “I just don’t think there’s enough goodwill there.”

Congress certainly could use some bipartisan goodwill these days. Lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday after a two-week recess that featured emotional public forums on divisive issues including deficit spending, Medicare’s growing costs and the need to raise the national debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on loans.

Sometimes in the same meetings, one group of voters threatened to punish lawmakers who refuse to raise taxes on the rich, and others vowed to oust anyone who dares to raise taxes or the debt limit.

Congress and the nation have grown so partisan and polarized in recent decades that even a universally embraced feat — the death of the chief terrorist behind the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans — has little ability to influence other aspects of public life.

There are many reasons. Americans have settled into more rigidly defined political sectors. The nation remains almost evenly split between the two major parties, with a relatively modest number of independent voters deciding recent elections.

In the House, trends in migration and redistricting have created many staunchly liberal and staunchly conservative districts. Voters send lawmakers to Washington who barely comprehend each other’s points of view, let alone embrace them.

With Democrats controlling the Senate and White House, Republicans see the House as their only federal power base. The more they cooperate with Obama, the more they infuriate their conservative base, and the more they help the president build a record of accomplishments that might boost his re-election campaign.

Partisanship has long shaped Congress, of course. But today’s lawmakers are more open about it. Many of them scarcely conceal their unbridled zeal to win the next election, and they pay little lip service to the notion of finding compromises that might help the general public.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, speaking of the bin Laden raid, said Obama “made the right call, and we thank him for it.” But McConnell has never backed away from his 2010 statement that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Obama told a White House gathering of lawmakers Monday night that he hopes to recapture at least some of the unity that swept a stunned and grieving nation on Sept. 11, 2001.

“That unity that we felt on 9/11 has frayed a little bit over the years, and I have no illusions about the difficulties of the debates that we’ll have to be engaged in, in the weeks and months to come,” the president said. But Americans come together in times of tragedy, he said, and “it is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face.”

Working against such unity, however, is an ever-growing number of intensely partisan blogs, Internet sites and cable and radio talk shows. Recent polls indicate that the more time mainstream news outlets spent debunking the false claim that Obama was born overseas, the more Americans embraced it.

The Jan. 8 near-fatal shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., prompted widespread calls for calmer political rhetoric and an end to campaign techniques such as drawing crosshairs over “targeted” opponents. It didn’t last long.

Partisans quickly accused each other of trying to exploit the tragedy for political gain. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, said she was the victim of a “blood libel” related to her criticisms of Giffords. Her remarks triggered a new round of recriminations.

Some lawmakers held out the possibility of greater bipartisanship stemming from the raid against bin Laden, but they stopped short of predicting it.

“We’re all rallying around our intelligence capabilities, and our service men and women who were part of this,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Asked if the goodwill would spill over to domestic questions, he replied: “I don’t know. It’s not obvious.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the successful raid in Pakistan would not make it easier to reach an accord on how to fund the military. “I don’t think it’ll have any direct impact,” he said.

Some lawmakers couldn’t find a bipartisan note in the entire affair. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., told CNN that bin Laden’s death was “the ’Mission Accomplished’ moment that George Bush fantasized.”

Conservative websites distributed and condemned his remarks.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for The Associated Press.

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