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Gridlock Central

With Congress closely divided and the next president lacking a mandate, campaign 2002 maybe just around the corner.

November 12, 2000|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author of "The Politics of the Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "The Cousin's War: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

WASHINGTON — Nobody could have ever written the plot for this unbelievable election any more than they could have sold a script about a president, a 21-year-old White House intern and a stained dress.

But both came to pass, and of all the presidents-elect to be delegitimized by finishing second in the popular vote and squeaking in as a result of a dubious Florida vote count, George W. Bush is probably the one who can afford it least.

His inexperience is stipulated even by many who voted for him. If he's inaugurated, he'll take office pretested as the butt of late-evening talk-show humor. The other big joke--except that it isn't one--is that the Democrats should prove luckier to have lost the election than the GOP to have won it. The implications for the two parties could be enormous.

Sure, there's still time for the two parties to stand down and unfix bayonets, but there's also a good chance that we'll see two years of acrimony--negative rather than benign gridlock in Washington--right through the 2002 midterm elections, with the odds favoring the party that avoided gaining what will be a tarnished presidency.

Talk that Bush has no mandate is actually an understatement. It's not his own electoral embarrassment. The total vote for the center-left--Vice President Al Gore and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader--was 52%, its highest share since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Nader and his voters may now be what George C. Wallace was after 1968: a pivotal force to be courted. Conservatism is losing momentum.

That's why the Democrats nearly picked up enough seats to gain control of the U.S. Senate. The psychological compensation that gave Bush his 48%, most potent in the South, was Gore's link to Bill Clinton and the public's sour and lingering memory of the president's impeachment and immorality. In many ways, Bush is a post-Clinton impeachment fluke, as was Jimmy Carter a post-Watergate Richard M. Nixon fluke.

True, other presidents of the last 50 years have suffered some credibility loss as a result of entering the White House after winning less than 50% of the popular vote: John F. Kennedy in 1960, Nixon in 1968 and Clinton in 1992. What makes Bush's credibility problem so much worse is that he's apparently the first president-elect to have lost the popular vote and won the electoral college since Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and he's the first president-elect whose only real credential for nomination lay in being the son of his party's previous president, sort of an American crypto-Prince of Wales or dauphin.

In January, I raised the analogy between the possible nomination and election of George W. and previous Restorations in 17th-century England and early 19th-century France. These came when princes of the House of Stuart and the House of Bourbon were restored to the thrones in their respective nations after interlopers and usurpers wore out their welcome. Both elites and ordinary folks forgot why they wanted to dump the Stuarts and Bourbons in the first place and put the dethroned king's relative on the throne. Neither Restoration succeeded.

The 1999-2000 election cycle has had a lot of this. Impeachment of the immoral interloper Clinton. Public desire to put the old family back in, strongest in the South, which is both a morality belt and the region most offended to call Clinton a native son. The tainting of the interloper's heir, Gore, by both his ties to Clinton and his own serial exaggerations and minor lies, which reminded voters that he and the discredited president seemed to share a trait. The upshot: The marginally qualified, inexperienced heir of the House of Bush actually makes it to apparent victory in the electoral college, thanks to an 11-state sweep of the Old Confederacy.

The Republicans, meanwhile, now find themselves in a pickle. The GOP's cyclical control of the presidency, from 1968 through 1992, appeared to end with the divisions caused by Ross Perot and with Clinton's success. Now, with Bush being the son of the last GOP president in that 1968-92 supremacy, his administration must be tacked on to the old Republican era. Accordingly, GOP supremacy can now be hypothesized to run from 1968 to 2004. The Republicans will have won six of the nine presidential elections, controlling the White House for 24 out of 36 years. This is not unfair, because the early part of the Republican presidential cycle was warped by the Watergate scandal, which elected Carter in 1976. Now the GOP cycle is being artificially extended beyond its own ideological time by the election of a Republican following Clinton's impeachment.

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