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Jewish World Review June 5, 2001 / 15 Sivan, 5761

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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A game of ball control

The death of the Bush agenda may be greatly exaggerated --
IS George W. Bush's agenda dead, as the new Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, says? Not necessarily–for two reasons. The first is that Daschle does not control the Senate. No one controls the Senate. A legislative body that conducts its everyday business under procedures that require unanimous consent, allows every member to speak for an unlimited time, and allows the introduction of an unlimited number of nongermane amendments is incapable of being controlled by anyone. Trent Lott supposedly controlled the Senate until last month. But he had to let John McCain have two weeks of debate on campaign finance, because McCain threatened to tie up all Senate business if he didn't.

As majority leader, Daschle will have the power to set the schedule–usually. He will be able to delay or defer many things Republicans would like to bring forward. But his control will not be total. When Daschle suggested that he would hold up all judicial appointments, Republicans threatened to stall all Senate business if he did, and now it appears many nominations will go through. Daschle will be able to bury a lot of low-visibility items that Republicans want. But he will have a hard time burying high-visibility items about which Republicans have strong feelings.

Bipartisan by design. The second reason is that the Bush agenda was specifically designed not to depend on Republican majorities. Each item has support from a significant number of Democrats. That was true of the tax cut and education bills, now on their way to becoming law. It is true of Medicare reform, defense spending changes, and Social Security reform–the three other major items that Bush is intent on shepherding through Congress in 2001 and 2002. The major backer of Medicare reform is Louisiana Democratic Sen. John Breaux, who also assembled a bipartisan group of senators that provided key support for–and set the number for–the $1.3 trillion tax cut. Many Democrats, especially on the Armed Services Committee, are open to the defense changes Bush is likely to call for. As for Social Security, Bush's commission, which is to report this fall, is cochaired by former Senate Finance Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a man whom Daschle cited a few years ago as the senator he would look to for advice on Social Security.

That's not what Daschle is saying now. But what's really interesting about the forthcoming clashes between Bush and Daschle is that they have sharply different ideas of where public opinion is. On energy, Bush is betting that voters do not want energy price controls and believe that free markets are the best way to secure more energy. Daschle is banking on the idea that voters now, as in the 1970s, want controls. On Social Security, Bush is banking on the proposition that voters, especially young voters, believe that the current Social Security system won't provide dependable retirement incomes after the baby boomers retire. Daschle says baldly, as Democrats did in the 1970s, that Social Security in its present form has always worked and always will. Interestingly, in early 1999, Bill Clinton's assumptions about public opinion were similar to Bush's; he came close to backing Social Security and Medicare reform before he decided to side with Al Gore and the left-wing Democrats who had supported him during impeachment.

They can't both be right. Either public opinion is the same as it was a generation ago, as Daschle believes, or it has changed, as Bush believes. I think Bush is closer to the truth. Many intelligent observers disagree. We shall see who's right in 2002 and 2004.

Bush and Daschle also disagree on the basic mood of the country. Daschle's vitriolic criticism of Bush's policies, though voiced in soft tones, and his determination to obstruct Bush's programs assume that voters will reward a posture of confrontation. Bush's continued calls for bipartisan cooperation, and his assembling of bipartisan coalitions, assume that the public is yearning for an era of consensus. Recent history is on Bush's side. Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, voters have preferred consensus to confrontation and have voted heavily for incumbents and, in open seats, for candidates who promise cooperation. In 1996 that helped Bill Clinton (whose opponent, as you may remember from Democratic ads, was named Dole Gingrich). In 2000, it helped the bipartisan-talking George W. Bush defeat the heavy-sighed attacker Al Gore. One Democratic pollster, asked whether the public would accept the Democrats' attack posture, responded that voters aren't paying much attention to politics and would respond favorably to Democrats' framing of the issues, even though that seems to assume that opinion has stayed frozen since the late 1970s. I am not so sure. As the out party, the Democrats do have a dilemma: It is usually the business of the opposition to oppose, and to oppose one usually must attack, even if voters don't much like attacks. But the attack mode didn't help Bob Dole in 1996 or Al Gore in 2000. And it is not clear that it will help the Democrats in 2002 or 2004.

Michael Baone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." FONT COLOR="#557799" FACE="Times New Roman" SIZE="4"> He also edits the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone