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Unite Us, Mr. President

November 07, 2002

President Bush can justifiably take pride in the GOP's historic victory Tuesday. Bush, who put his prestige on the line in vigorously campaigning, played a key role in becoming the first Republican president since Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and 1906 to see his party gain seats in a midterm election. But the question facing a president who entered office on a platform of "compassionate conservatism" is simple. Will Bush follow in Roosevelt's footsteps by using GOP dominance to pursue policies that broaden his party's appeal? Or will he pursue a more radical agenda?

As impressive as the GOP results are, they do not constitute a mandate for sweeping changes in tax policies, judicial independence, civil rights and the environment. The margin of victory in both the Senate and the House was too narrow to support the conclusion that the electorate has moved decisively to the right. The internal disarray and timidity of the Democrats surely played as much a part in pushing the GOP over the top as Bush's shrewd and relentless focus on the fight against terrorism.

When Congress reconvenes Tuesday, it probably will shove through important stalled legislation. Two good bills likely to pass in the lame-duck session are terrorism insurance for businesses and a Medicare giveback that will benefit nursing homes, hospitals and home health-care providers.

The real test of the administration's program will come next year. With a limping economy, Bush may well push for accelerating his 10-year tax cut and making it permanent. If the economy really heads south, there may be a case for a targeted tax cut that stimulates where interest rate cuts -- the latest, a half-percentage-point reduction, came Wednesday -- have failed. But making the tax cuts permanent was a bad idea in the last Congress and it remains a lousy one: It would cause massive federal deficits. After 2012, permanent tax cuts would cost the Treasury about $4 trillion in revenues over the following decade.

Another harbinger of extremist policies will be if the administration returns to its proposal for opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

But there are hopeful signs. Bush has worked patiently with the United Nations Security Council to reach a new resolution on Iraq rather than rushing headlong into a unilateral war. He has also carefully attempted to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms program. At home, the United States could only benefit from the administration's taking a similarly restrained approach in domestic matters.

On Tuesday, voters gave Bush a rare opportunity to put his stamp on politics for decades. But only if in victory he pursues magnanimity and follows mainstream policies that unite the country.

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