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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

It's Winner Take All, but It's What He's Willing to Give That Matters

It will take more than bipartisan movie nights at the White House to build a consensus for action; the winner can't expect much success without substantive accommodations to the other side.

November 20, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In the swamp that the 2000 election has become, lawsuits are breeding faster than mosquitoes. No presidential result has been this fiercely contested after the fact since 1876, when the election day balloting didn't produce an undisputed winner and congressional Democrats blocked the apparent victory of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes until the GOP agreed to end the post-Civil War reconstruction of the South.

None of the policies at stake in the struggle between George W. Bush and Al Gore is nearly as consequential as the decision to remove federal troops from the South after the Civil War. But the feelings on each side today may be just as acrimonious as 124 years ago. That means when one of these men finally scratches his way into the Oval Office, his first challenge will be to heal the wounds he has just gouged into the other. In ways neither anticipated, Gore and Bush are now intimately bound together.

For the winner, the surest road to disaster would be ignoring the events of the last few weeks--not only the dispute over Florida, but the razor-thin margin of the election overall. At every level--from the presidential popular vote and electoral college to the virtually even split in Congress--this election was the closest the country has come to a tie in more than a century. For the winner to act as if the result meant the nation has given him a clear mandate for the agenda he ran on would be more than hubris; it would be suicidal.

Instead, the next president may need to take extraordinary steps to court the other party. Talk of a full-fledged coalition government that divides power equally between the parties is misguided; that's not the American system. But it will take more than bipartisan movie nights at the White House to build a consensus for action; the winner can't expect much success without offering substantive accommodations to the other side.

What olive branches might the next president offer? Some suggestions:

Bring the other party into the administration: Both sides say they intend to offer top jobs to members of the opposition party if they win. But in their initial speculations, each camp is focusing mostly on foreign policy and defense, the arena where bipartisanship is easiest and most expected. To appoint former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn as secretary of Defense, as Bushies openly discuss, wouldn't say much.

This situation demands more creative approaches. After a campaign in which Bush repeatedly praised the innovative centrist thinking at the Democratic Leadership Council, he might be well-advised to offer some of its brighter lights high-profile domestic policy jobs; Bush aides are intrigued with Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, a dedicated education reformer.

A President Gore could summon a prominent Bush supporter--like former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith--to implement his pledge to give religious-based charities a larger role in delivering social services (a top Bush priority as well). More ambitiously, some around him think Gore would consider former Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman as attorney general. That would signal a welcome commitment not only to bipartisanship but to political reform and independence at the Justice Department.

Offer the loser a job: It's probably unrealistic to expect the loser to accept a full-time position in the winner's administration (though it would send a good signal if a President Bush at least offered Gore the U.N. ambassadorship or a President Gore asked Bush to become ambassador to Mexico). But the winner could offer his rival a high-profile special assignment; Gore, for instance, might ask Bush to lead the now-stalled negotiations to construct a hemisphere-wide free trade zone. There's precedent: After the 1940 election, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the man he defeated, Republican Wendell Willkie, on a round-the-world goodwill tour that drew rave reviews at home and abroad.

Adopt some of the loser's ideas: The country would surely respond well if the winner said that during the hard-fought campaign he had been impressed by some of his opponent's ideas and, in the spirit of compromise, now planned to adopt them.

A President Gore could embrace Bush's proposal to sweeten tax incentives for contributions to religious-based charities. More boldly, Gore could integrate into his education reform agenda the trade at the heart of Bush's education plan: offering states greater flexibility in spending federal money if they test students in math and reading from third through eighth grade.

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