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Jewish World Review June 1, 2001 / 10 Sivan, 5761

Tony Snow

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The best break
Dubya ever got -- JIM JEFFORDS' decision to switch from being a Republican to being a Nothing may be the best break George W. Bush every got.

Forget the angry tirades about who lost or gained the Senate, about whether the president is a heard-hearted fiend masquerading as Mr. Affable or about whether a grasping Vermont politico staged a "palace coup" and overturned an election: These plotlines express their authors' prejudices and predispositions.

Jim Jeffords hasn't been a Republican for two decades. He resisted Ronald Reagan's tax cuts, voted against Clarence Thomas' confirmation as associate justice of the Supreme Court and was the first to sign on to Hillary Rodham Clinton's disastrous health-care reforms.

He comes from a state whose voters consider Democrats a dangerously conservative breed, and where Bernard Sanders, the only socialist in Congress, enjoys unparalleled popularity.

Jeffords' last identifiable Republican passion was "The Singing Senators," a barbershop quartet anchored by Republican leader Trent Lott. John Ashcroft's loss at the polls effectively wiped out the group and, with it, Jeffords' last remaining link to the GOP.

So, having nothing in common with his party and no compelling local reason for remaining part of it, Jeffords scrammed.

The shift not only gives Democrats effective (albeit possibly temporary) control of the Senate, it also will force George W. Bush to make the most important procedural decision of his presidency -- whether to start using his executive muscle.

His fortunes hinge on this. Every successful commander in chief establishes his bona fides by proving that he's the Big Dog in Washington and forcing Congress to bend to his will. Bill Clinton didn't rise to full stature in office until he got Republican opposition. The Gingrich Brigades gave him an identifiable foe and forced him to use all the tools in the presidential toolbox. Clinton couldn't veto bills when Democrats ruled; he could do so with impunity when Republicans took over. He couldn't use the bully pulpit when he was getting his way. He needed someone to bully. Even though he proposed no major legislation for the final seven years of his presidency, he looked presidential because he made Congress seem trivial. Similarly, the Reagan presidency assumed gravity when the then-new president fired the nation's striking air-traffic controllers and jammed an ambitious tax cut through an overwhelmingly Democratic House of Representatives. With those two swift victories, Reagan repudiated critics who had tagged him as an "amiable dunce."

Although we like lawmakers to represent us, we expect presidents to lead us. When they don't, we fire them. Former President George Bush got whipsawed by Congress -- and lost his re-election bid. Jimmy Carter got pummelled by Congress, and he lost his quest for a second term. Both men shied from confrontation, aimed at conciliation and got early vacations.

The Jeffords defection liberates the president from having to mollify malcontents in his midst and having to grovel before Republican grandees. Now, he can return to basics, such as defining and defending his core ideas -- and forcing Congress to march to his tune.

That shouldn't be tough. Despite the superheated rhetoric in Washington, very little separates the two parties. Bush has won the debate about taxes, and he seems determined to wage a larger ground war on such matters as education and the environment. Democrats and Republicans have been reduced to yelping angrily at one another over differences so comically trivial that one wonders seriously about their sanity.

Such behavior helps explain why America has become politically ambiguous, with half the country leaning Democrat and half Republican. People want someone to set not just a tone, but a course. Congressional moderates, proudly anxious and pleasant, won't lead. So the chore of defining American politics for the next generation will fall either to liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans -- to the advocates of omnipresent government or dwindling government.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle has taken up the challenge with great zest, excoriating the president's policies as profligate lunacy and trying to craft his own mild-mannered version of New Democrat liberalism.

Now comes the president's turn. He has charm and patience -- but more importantly, he has special powers. He can command news coverage. He can talk directly to the nation. He can draft laws with executive orders and fill vacancies with recess appointments. He can do all this and more -- but only if he realizes that being president means saying without apology: "I'm in charge here."

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate