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Jewish World Review Nov. 17, 2000 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Tony Snow

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After the bickering ends -- IT HAS BECOME fashionable to speak of "closure" in this year's election, and the locution makes a sick sort of sense. Why not employ gooey psychobabble to describe a plebiscite that decided nothing and seems only to have proved that baby boomers, for whatever reason, are incapable of maturing into adults?

The reason we have no "closure" is that neither George W. Bush nor Albert A. Gore Jr. closed the deal with voters. Bush, for all his personal appeal, ultimately bolstered his detractors' claims that he didn't have the drive and work ethic to succeed. He coasted through the last two weeks of the race, smiling and spinning. He and his people left hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank -- refusing to release ads in key states and rejecting advice to give a big, bold, reassuring speech in the wake of the last-minute DUI story.

Gore's decision to litigate until death cast a pall over him, as well. He confirmed suspicions that he views the law not as a brake on misbehavior, but as a tool for getting one's way -- through the use of force, if necessary. Gore also destroyed long-settled traditions (always a dangerous thing to do) when he refused to accept gracefully what may have seemed a galling and unfair defeat. He now appears ready to transform the Constitution into a playground for trial lawyers and a slaughterhouse for federalism.

Nevertheless, one of these men will become president. And that's where the closure gap enters the picture. The 43rd president will have a very weak hand, at best. He won't be able to control his caucus in Congress, and he'll lack the strength to intimidate lawmakers with veto threats. Meanwhile, the House and Senate are likely to splinter into dozens of constantly shifting alliances and caucuses. Barring a national crisis, we won't see substantial legislative action for months, which is probably just as well: Americans aren't exactly clamoring for Washington to go on a legislate-and-regulate binge.

The next commander in chief also will have to do something he didn't do on the hustings -- promote a vision of American government. Although Gore campaigned as an unreconstructed left-winger, voters said they actually thought he was more conservative than Bill Clinton. As a result, a President Gore could find himself whipsawed between an expectant electorate and a very demanding group of Democratic interest groups -- labor unions, trial lawyers, abortion supporters, government employees and environmentalists.

Bush faces similar difficulties. He talked about reaching across party lines, but on what issues? And how could he befriend Democrats, given the partisan acrimony in Washington?

Bush offered no clue during the campaign. He didn't outline a legislative program that could command broad support, and he argued for his election on grounds of temperament rather than ideology.

But charm can't work in a vacuum. One needs to use the personal touch in support of an issue or crusade. Republicans have special cause for pause. They have boasted in recent years that America has become more conservative, but there's not much evidence to support the claim. GOP candidates certainly didn't act as if they thought Reaganesque pronunciamentos would propel them to victory, and the public seems wary of talk about old-fashioned values or virtues. We have become a nation of agnostics, not merely on matters of religion, but also manners and morals.

The third and most momentous challenge to the next president will be to broaden his party's base without diluting its message. Bush tried in passing to court black voters, but he got the lowest percentage of the African-American vote in the post-Jim Crow era. If nothing else, the returns show that Republicans need to stop pandering incompetently and start making the limited-government case competently -- at all places and at all times.

Democrats also need a bigger tent. Al Gore carried the big cities but lost everything else. One look at the electoral map shows the unique nature of his appeal: He carried the Northeast, the industrial Midwest and the West Coast. The rest of the country was pretty much Bush territory.

This makes Democrats shudder. Gore won the fastest-shrinking areas of the country -- densely populated urban areas -- leading to the possibility that his political formula could relegate Democrats to permanent minority status within a decade.

So even when we get a president, we aren't likely to achieve closure until a leader finds a message more compelling than: "Elect me. I've got better lawyers."

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate