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Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2001 / 8 Teves, 5761

Michael Barone

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Consumer Reports

President-elect Bush aims to make friends, one at a time --
ANYONE who is wondering how George W. Bush is going about constructing bipartisan coalitions in Congress could do worse than head over to the American history bookshelves and grab a copy of James Sterling Young's The Washington Community 1800-1828. Much of Young's focus is on Thomas Jefferson. Elected, like Bush, after a protracted post-election struggle, Jefferson faced a Congress in which his party had only narrow and uncertain margins. Like Bush, Jefferson was a weak public speaker, but he was charming and persuasive in private meetings. So he invited members of Congress almost nightly to the White House. Over dinner, with plenty of wine, he won their support. Members then lived in boardinghouses, and those in each often became political allies. Jefferson didn't mix his Republican backers with the opposition Federalists. But he took care to gather together Republicans from different boardinghouses, thus uniting his own party. The Federalists Jefferson treated differently. He invited them by boardinghouse bloc–the better to detach a bunch of them from fellow partisans.

One can read something much like this strategy in the lists of members of Congress and others Bush has consulted or invited to meetings on education, faith-based policies, and Latino issues. The effort is to unite his fellow Republicans, and to separate possibly favorable Democrats from those that are unreachable. The Latino list was dominated by Bush loyalists: music entrepreneur Emilio Estefan, California Assemblyman Abel Maldonado, Republican Reps. Henry Bonilla of Texas, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida. It also included Rick Dovalina of the League of United Latin American Citizens and Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza, organizations generally inclined toward Democrats but with large memberships interested in subjects like charter schools. Not included were foundation-supported groups like the MexicanAmerican Legal Defense and Educational Fund or Hispanics who are hard-line supporters of racial quotas and preferences and current bilingual education programs.

See the pattern? Among the religious leaders Bush has consulted with are the Rev. Herb Lusk and the Rev. Eugene Rivers. Both participated in a forum held during the Republican convention in Philadelphia. Bush has also reached out to moderate liberals, like Murray Friedman of the American Jewish Committee and Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal. Bush's education meeting included New Democrats like Reps. Tim Roemer of Indiana and Rob Andrews of New Jersey, Senators Zell Miller of Georgia and Evan Bayh of Indiana, as well as many Republicans. Not included were Sen. Edward Kennedy and others who can be counted on to support the teachers unions 100 percent.

Naturally, some Democrats complain that some like Kennedy weren't invited. Senate and House Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt have warned that there can be no bipartisanship unless they are involved. But there's a point here, too. Bush does not want the kind of negotiations with Democratic leaders that led his father to abandon his no-new-taxes pledge. He can get bills to the floor without the Dem- ocratic leadership in the House and, at least on issues on which 40 senators are not adamantly opposed, in the Senate. So he is inviting Democratic boardinghouse groups who are open to supporting his policies, and mixing them with Republicans willing to go along.

The care with which these meetings have been put together shows that some on the Bush team have been working on something other than Florida vote counts–including Bush. And not just since Election Day. Examine each of Bush's major proposals, and you will see that they command virtually total support from Republicans while appealing to significant numbers of Democrats as well. The Bush platform was crafted with a view not just to the campaign but to governing.

Which is not to say Bush will get everything he wants; not even Jefferson did. As president, Bush's first focus will be on education, where a bipartisan majority seems readily attainable. He may yield on school vouchers, but that's only a small part of his education program. The real goal is to refashion federal aid to education so it promotes accountability. For years, schools and teachers unions have tried to insulate schools and teachers from accountability. Now parents and voters are demanding results, and if Bush succeeds, the federal government will too.

But education is not the main event. The first congressional Democrat Bush phoned and met with after the election was Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana. Breaux chaired the bipartisan Medicare Commission, whose majority report of March 1999 was rejected by Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Breaux and Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee have drafted bipartisan Medicare legislation that is ready to go. It is modeled on the federal employees' health plan and would change Medicare from a centralized command-and-control program to one that gives choices and uses market mechanisms. Bush supported the Breaux commission during the campaign and now seems prepared to make reform of this major entitlement a first-year goal. Keep your eye on those boardinghouse groups.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone