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THE NATION | CONGRESS

A Few Hits to the Right, Then a Bipartisan Game

December 17, 2000|Jonathan V. Last | Jonathan V. Last is a reporter for the Weekly Standard

WASHINGTON — With the election mercifully over, Washington is trying to figure out exactly what is going to happen now that, for the first time in nearly half a century, Republicans control the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives. In some sectors of the GOP, there is a feeling that conservatives have delivered for President-elect George W. Bush, and now he must deliver for them. At the same time, congressional Democrats are eagerly awaiting any sort of overreach from the likes of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Majority Leader Dick Armey. One false move from conservative Republicans, they believe, will give them a new boogeyman, another Newt Gingrich to run against in 2002.

So Bush will have to walk a fine line, being firm enough to enact his agenda, yet flexible enough to allow for some bipartisan compromise. He's mindful of the trap his father fell into during his first months in office. George Bush compromised with a Democratic Congress and signed the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and a compromise budget deal, but never got any concessions in return. Because he tried too hard to be bipartisan, Bush eventually lost his hold on the Republican base and faced reelection challenges from the right in both Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. Then in the 1992 race, he had to face the constant reminder that he had broken his 1988 "read my lips, no new taxes" promise.

George W. has learned from his father's presidency. Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, says: "The Hippocratic Oath in Austin is, first, don't anger the base." He will have to govern differently from his father. He'll have to keep the right on board but employ a certain amount of triangulation. And the arms-length distance at which he'll have to hold Congress means that the influence of conservative Republicans like Armey and DeLay will be minimized.

In a strange way, the long-term influence of congressional Republicans will be determined during the first few months of Bush's term. The key for Bush to preserve his independence is to mix his signals. He must be moderate and bipartisan in some spots, but conservative in others. As one Republican aide said, "He'll want to go up a few runs with conservatives in the early innings." And if Bush can score those early runs, he'll give himself the luxury of pitching around certain issues later in the game.

How, then, does Bush shore up his conservative base, reach across the aisle for bipartisan support and declare his independence from the DeLay-Armey wing of the party after such a fierce presidential contest? It's easier than it seems.

For starters, the 35 days of battle in Florida are themselves a tip of the hat to conservatives. More than any program or law, conservatives wanted to sweep the Clinton-Gore regime out of Washington. When it became clear that Vice President Al Gore was going to contest the election by using the courts to change the outcome, Bush got tough and dug in.

Remember, it wasn't a foregone conclusion a month ago that Bush would meet force with force. Many people called on Bush to be soft and "statesmanlike," to stand aside as Gore waged war in Florida. Instead, Bush showed a steely-eyed determination not to back down--and conservatives noticed.

Now that the Florida fight is won, Bush seems poised to signal his ideological independence through his administrative and Cabinet appointments. Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. is a congenial, popular figure in Washington, but he's no conservative ideologue. Colin L. Powell, chosen Friday for secretary of State, is a pro-choice, pro-affirmative action Republican. And the prospect of ultramoderate Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge as defense secretary has some congressional conservatives knocked back on their heels.

Some of the policy pillars of Bush's campaign probably won't be feasible once he takes office. His across-the-board tax cut, for one thing, is probably dead on arrival. But as Republican strategist Jeff Bell notes, because of the recent economic slowdown, there is now widespread support for some form of tax cut. The most likely scenario is that Bush will add Democratic tax cuts to GOP tax cuts, the way President Ronald Reagan did in 1981, to build consensus.

Bush will be able to make a series of small center-right legislative moves that enjoy broad public support. He can eliminate the death tax and the marriage penalty, sign a partial-birth abortion ban and create education savings accounts. These measures will please the public not only because of their substance, but also because their very passage would mark a return to the politics of civility in Washington. If Bush pushes through with these measures in the first 180 days--a real possibility--it will signal an end to partisan gridlock and give him momentum.

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