WASHINGTON — We are not even two weeks into the new year, and the nation’s politicians are already caught up in a deep contradiction between words and deeds. The incongruity involves “bipartisanship.”

Few words have been repeated more often by leaders of both parties and President Bush since the new Congress took power. All of God’s children are for bipartisan solutions, bipartisan consultations, bipartisan civility. Commenting on Iraq in his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece last week, Bush wrote of building “a bipartisan consensus to fight and win the war.”

That very phrase suggests how meaningless bipartisan talk can be. The fundamental divide on Iraq is precisely over whether the United States has an interest in fighting much longer, and whether there is any strategy that could, by a reasonable definition, “win” the war. That’s especially true since the president has been steadily defining victory down, to the point where we don’t really know what he means by “win” anymore.

And if bipartisanship is what matters most, there is far more bipartisan accord on finding the best way out of Iraq than on escalating the war. That’s what the Iraq Study Group report showed, and it’s the message being sent by a growing group of dissident Republican senators.

Are politicians simply lying when they use the word bipartisan? My hunch is that they really think they mean it, since every politician wants members of the other party to acknowledge the wisdom of his or her ideas.

Take, again, the case of Bush: He has asked for a line-item veto to kill spending items he doesn’t like. Of course he’d love Democrats to support this. But he is likely to make this cause a much bigger issue now that Democrats control Congress than he ever did when Republicans held sway. Why? Because he wants to limit the opposition’s power. He’s asking the new Democratic majority, in a nice, bipartisan way, to cripple itself — and he’ll no doubt attack the Democrats for partisanship when they decline his kind invitation.

Politicians are talking about bipartisanship because they know that the middle-of-the-road voters who were so important to the outcome of the last election care far more about problem-solving than ideology. It’s a good instinct.

But bipartisanship works only when there is sufficient agreement on the definition of the problem being solved and the urgency of solving it. The ensuing arguments and negotiations can then focus on the best means for reaching a shared goal.

For example, it is imperative (in my view, at least) for the United States to make sure that every American has health insurance. If there were broad enough agreement on that objective, Republicans and Democrats could haggle in reasonably good faith about the best means to achieve the result — how big should government’s role be, how much should be left to the market, and how much leeway should states have to create their own programs.

We need to have that discussion someday. At the moment, alas, the commitment to universal coverage is simply not broad enough, meaning it will take hard political struggle and not just consensus-building to get something done.

There are even times when bipartisanship can lead to bad government and incoherent trade-offs that violate the public interest. The classic instance involves one party winning special-interest tax breaks in exchange for the other getting a special-interest spending program to its liking.

A live case is the president’s demand that a badly needed increase in the minimum wage be paired in a bipartisan way with yet more business tax breaks.

Democrats would be fools to give in to the tax-break blackmail. In the unlikely event that such breaks could be targeted properly, why should employers of low-wage labor get benefits that other businesses don’t? In any event, new tax changes should be part of a larger effort to reform the tax system and, in light of the budget deficit, to raise revenue. Democrats — yes, with the bipartisan help of pro-labor Republicans — should have the courage to pass a clean minimum-wage increase and dare the president to veto it or his Senate allies to filibuster it.

Honest to goodness, I truly prefer consensus, civility and problem-solving. But if there is one thing worse than the absence of bipartisanship, it is a phony and ultimately unstable consensus that sells out everybody’s principles. For better or worse, we have a lot of fighting and arguing to do before we can enter the gates of a truly bipartisan paradise.

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

Copyright 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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