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How a ‘Committed Partisan Warrior’ Came to Rethink the Political Wars

U.S.How a ‘Committed Partisan Warrior’ Came to Rethink the Political Wars

Once, after he executed a particularly tough-minded legal attack on Republicans, Bob Bauer remembers, a conservative magazine called him an “evil genius.” He took it as a compliment. “I was very proud of that,” he said. “I thought, That’s cool.”

For decades, Democrats have turned to him as their lawyer to wage battles against the opposition. Reverse a House race they seemingly lost? Accuse the other side of criminal activity? Go to court to cut off Republican money flows? Find a legal justification for an ethically iffy strategy? Mr. Bauer was their man.

But now Mr. Bauer, the personal attorney for President Biden and previously the White House counsel for President Barack Obama, is looking back and rethinking all that. Maybe, he says, that win-at-all-costs approach to politics is not really conducive to a healthy, functioning democracy. Maybe, in taking the “genius” part to heart, he should have been more concerned about the “evil” part.

In a new book, “The Unraveling: Reflections on Politics Without Ethics and Democracy in Crisis,” to be published on Tuesday, Mr. Bauer takes stock of what he sees as the coarsening of American politics and examines the tension between ethical decisions and the “warrior mentality” that dominates the worlds of government and campaigns today. And in the process of thinking about what went wrong, Mr. Bauer, who calls himself a “committed partisan warrior,” has stopped to wrestle with his own role in the wars.

“I tell stories that go from sort of youthful peccadilloes to more significant mistakes I think that I made as I thought about what it meant to win a policy or win an election, about how far you go to do that,” he said on a recent evening at the New-York Historical Society, where he discussed the book.

“How do we make the politics better?” he asked. “How do we uphold our democratic norms by focusing on choices that people in positions of public responsibility have to make? And how do we make them in a way that is respectful of those norms and respectful of those institutions — as opposed to politics as blood sport, whatever it takes?”

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