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The GOP's control of Congress and the White House can
last only so long. But it's time enough to satisfy
the party's right wing.

No Time for Statesmanship

April 15, 2001|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

WASHINGTON — The real measure of how far George W. Bush's Texas conservatism has put him out of sync with moderates is that he's become the first Republican president to have a rumored renomination challenger even before he spends 100 days in office. Part of why Bush has been unusually provocative so unusually early in his administration is because potentially crippling circumstances are dancing on the 2001 horizon.

Sure, Arizona Sen. John McCain quickly denied any intention of running in 2004. But his emergence as a White House opponent not just on campaign-finance reform but also on health maintenance organizations, the environment, gun control and other issues is a revealing litmus. When Democrat John F. Kennedy won the last real squeaker of a presidential election in 1960, he named two Republicans to his Cabinet and governed from the center. Bush, who actually lost the popular vote in November by some 500,000 votes, has forsaken the center nd snuggled up to the right, just as he did in last year's critical Dixie primaries.

The explanation is probably a rare combination of rapacity and hurried nervousness. There's no time for statesmanship. True, Bush may have given the GOP's right wing several of these recent hugs to make it more accepting of future compromises. But the real driver of GOP insistence on behalf of big oil, big donors and all the other bigs is a simple five-letter word: clock.

We are not just talking about a narrow time frame but also about a narrow politics. Republican congresses, rare and dominated by hard-core conservatives, try to pull even GOP presidents into their corner of right field. On top of which, history strongly argues that the Republicans will lose both houses in the 2002 midterm elections.

Worse still, their 50-50 tie in the U.S. Senate could vanish any day that 98-year-old Strom Thurmond of South Carolina loses his battle with the actuarial tables, at which point the state's Democratic governor would turn the Senate Democratic by 51-49, changing the control and organization of committees and stopping most of the conservative "must have" list dead in its tracks. Then there are Florida's still-to-be-tabulated overvotes and non-admitted ballots from last November. If they show, as remains probable, that a plurality of state voters tried to vote for Democrat Al Gore, Bush's already invisible mandate would shrivel a little bit more.

No one can appreciate Bush's pressure to act quickly without understanding that since 1930, there have been only three periods when the GOP controlled both houses of Congress: in 1947-48, 1953-54 and 1995 to the present. Even more crippling psychologically, over those same 70-plus years, just two times did the GOP hold both houses of Congress and the White House: 1953-54 and this year. And in 1953-54, President Dwight D. Eisenhower found it so offensive to be paired with the Republican 83rd Congress that he wondered about some kind of new party arrangement.

Partly because they have controlled Congress so infrequently and worked with a Republican president even less, the Capitol Hill GOP, especially on the House side, is mostly known for what they want to slash--upper-bracket taxes, regulations that impede business or the energy industry, gun laws, legal abortions, spending on domestic programs--or privatize--Social Security, health insurance and so forth. What this requires, bluntly, is that the slot machine of U.S. politics shows three of a kind: a Republican president, a Republican House and a Republican Senate. Right now, they have a jackpot.

For how long is iffy, to say the least. Historically, over the last century, the president's party has lost ground in Congress in every midterm election, save that of Depression-centered 1934, when support for new President Franklin D. Roosevelt was so overwhelming that his congressional Democrats gained seats. Because the current Republican majority in the House is a thin 223 to 212, while in the Senate it is 50-50, oddsmakers are betting on the Democrats to win back control. That will be even more likely if the present soft economy weakens into a full-fledged recession.

This time frame, moreover, doesn't include a full two years. When a closely divided Congress is facing a tough battle for control, its members don't like to risk unpopular votes in the election year. Controversial measures that don't get rammed through on near party-line votes in 2001 are probably dead.

The other election surprise that could plague Bush and the GOP is the last hurrah of the November presidential election, specifically, the mess in Florida, where the official count gave Bush a several hundred vote victory. Despite partial tabulations released by the Miami Herald and USA Today that showed Bush leading Gore in some recounts of undervotes, the full tabulation by the major news organizations of all the controversial ballots--the undervotes, overvotes and disqualified ballots--is still to be published.

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