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Our Divide Is Social, Not Political

December 31, 2000|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst at CNN

Bush acknowledges that his first task as president-elect is outreach. "I look forward to the chance of healing a nation that has been divided as the result of an election," he said on Dec. 20. So he pursued the Santa Claus strategy in naming his Cabinet and White House staff: something for everybody. After all, Santa Claus is a pretty popular fellow. Very high job approval ratings.

Bush reached out to groups that didn't support him. Like African Americans and women--Colin L. Powell for secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice for national security advisor. Moderate Republicans are getting not just Powell but also New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Both of them support abortion rights. But their jobs don't have much to do with abortion.

Bush speaks a little Spanish, but Latino voters went over 60% for Gore. So he named a Mexican American White House counsel and a Cuban American secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Republicans are in a deep depression in California. So Santa Bush brought them an Agriculture secretary, Ann M. Veneman, the first woman to head California's Department of Food and Agriculture. For the key post of Treasury Secretary, Bush needed someone politically connected. Like Paul H. O'Neill, a close personal friend of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan and of Vice President-elect Dick Cheney.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 21, 2001 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Opinion Desk 2 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Appointment--In "Our Divide Is Social, not Political," published Dec. 31 in the Opinion section, it was incorrectly reported that Ann M. Veneman, President George W. Bush's choice to be agriculture secretary, was the first woman to head California's Department of Food and Agriculture. Rose Bird, former chief justice of the California Supreme Court, was the first woman appointed to the state post.

Wait a minute, conservatives protested. What's Santa bringing us? We were good all year, never gave the ticket a minute of trouble. Ho, ho, ho, said Santa. I got you just what you wanted. John Ashcroft, who will be an attorney general with deeply conservative views on social issues and close ties to the religious right.

California and New Jersey are suburban states that used to be reliably Republican. But they also are coastal states whose voters don't like the ties between the GOP and the religious right. Clinton made it safe for tax-sensitive suburbanites to vote Democratic. He also got economic liberals like Bill Bradley and Ralph Nader to denounce Clintonism as a sell-out. At the same time, Clinton reduced the Democrats' appeal in culturally conservative areas of the country--like Tennessee, Arkansas and West Virginia, states Gore should have won. Talk to a liberal and they'll give you this analysis of the 2000 election: Gore lost because he kept his distance from Clinton. But the truth is, Gore lost because he couldn't keep his distance from Clinton.

Has American politics ever been this closely divided? Interestingly, yes--for 30 years after the Civil War. That war created a deep cultural divide: North versus South instead of left versus right. A president got impeached along straight party lines. For three decades, presidential elections were extremely close. So close that, in 1876 and 1888, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral vote. Imagine that.

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