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Jewish World Review Nov. 14, 2000 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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How Bush can lead

Governor's bipartisan pledge is just what the country needs --
CAN GEORGE BUSH govern? That's a question that would have been raised even absent the Gore campaign's war-room-mentality challenges to the vote for Bush in Florida and is perhaps more urgent now. Unless the long-shot legal challenge by the Democrats succeeds, Bush will have won by a narrow Electoral College majority, his party will have the thinnest of congressional majorities, and he will have passed through a controversy that would have been avoided had Al Gore had the public-spiritedness Richard Nixon demonstrated when he declined to challenge the results in 1960.

But 1960 also stands for the proposition that a president elected by a narrow and, to some, tainted margin can govern effectively and across partisan lines. Kennedy too did not have a secure majority in Congress: Many Democrats were conservative Southerners, and many Democratic committee chairmen were openly hostile to Kennedy's platform. Passing laws usually required some Republican votes. Kennedy worked shrewdly to build wide bipartisan support for his key measures. And he succeeded–on the 1962 trade act, the No. 1 legislative priority in his first two years, and on the Civil Rights Act and massive tax cuts, which contrary to usual opinion were well on their way to passage when he was assassinated in 1963.

Tax cuts. To pass major laws, Bush must amass bipartisan majorities. He, unlike Al Gore, has promised many times to build bipartisan coalitions. This is what he did in Texas. To be sure, the bipartisan tradition in Austin was stronger than in Washington. But the Bush issue positions were designed with a view to amassing bipartisan coalitions. And there is potential Democratic support on Capitol Hill on the issue emphasized by Bush. Democrats this year crossed party lines to vote for tax cuts (as Republicans have on the minimum wage and campaign finance), and many could conceivably support a compromise Bush tax cut. Bush backs the Medicare reforms proposed by a commission headed by Louisiana Democrat John Breaux, which has an obvious potential for bipartisan support. Leading Democrats, including Breaux and Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, have backed some form of the individual investment accounts at the heart of Bush's Social Security plan. And at least some Democrats share Bush's desire for more accountability and tests in education.

Building bipartisan coalitions on these issues won't be easy. But it's not impossible either. On many, if not all, Bush is not likely to get support from Democratic Party leaders. But he can prospect for votes among other Democrats, as he did in Texas. By all accounts, including those of the Democratic legislators who campaigned for him around the country, Bush is a good listener, responds candidly and with respect to others' arguments, is willing to compromise, and keeps his word–qualities useful in building legislative majorities. In contrast, Al Gore seldom worked closely with his former colleagues on Capitol Hill and is widely disliked by many, even in his own party. His strong partisanship, evident now in the way his campaign is challenging the Florida results, means that he would have to go against the grain to seek bipartisan action on the Hill.

In Texas, Bush used one more technique to hold onto bipartisan support. Two years ago, I asked Bush's campaign strategist Karl Rove whether Bush would be working for a Republican majority in the state House, which seemed within reach. Not really, Rove said. It was Bush's policy not to oppose Democratic legislators who had supported him on one of his major legislative priorities. In fact, Bush and Rove made sure that such Democrats would not have serious Republican opposition. Better an opposition-held legislature where you can build large majorities than a razor-thin Republican majority that might not hold together and could not get the supermajorities often required in the legislative process.

Bush will likely take the same stance in Washington. Reason with me, work together, get me to agree to meet you halfway, he will in effect say to Democratic legislators, and I will stick with you and see that you don't have serious opposition back home. For many Democrats, this is not a trivial concern. House Democrats from conservative districts like Stenholm's have been pressed hard by serious Republican opponents and would like to avoid that again. And redistricting in key states could hurt Democrats. If Bush becomes a popular president, many Democrats might like to have his neutrality or implied endorsement in 2002 or 2004. House Democratic leaders might try to maintain a united front against any Bush priority. But a leader as skillful as Tip O'Neill was not always able to do that against Ronald Reagan, and he had about 40 more Democratic colleagues than Dick Gephardt does today. In the Senate, 51-49 Republican or 50-50 (depending on the Washington state absentee vote) means that everything will have to be more bipartisan or nothing will get done. It may be hard to believe after the Florida hubbub, but there is a good chance for the bipartisan governance voters want in a Bush administration.

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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10/03/00: The death of Big Media
09/09/00: A fair question
08/28/00: Making labor's day
07/11/00: The new Mexico: The 20-year history behind an overnight change
07/06/00: A textbook campaign: Bush makes hay before the convention lights shine
06/23/00: Beat the press
06/06/00: Reining in regulators: Will the Supreme Court clip Washington's wings?
05/25/00: In plain English: Bilingual education flunks out of schools in California
04/28/00: Gore in the balance: His book reveals a fanatical approach to the environment
04/04/00: President-elect Putin offers a basis for hopes–and for fears
03/14/00: Over the long, long haul, the issues may yet favor the Republicans
03/02/00: Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner
02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone