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Politically Indirect

Kenneth R. Weinstein

Sure, George W. Bush was elected President, but for all the gloating about Al Gore’s refusal to concede the election, conservatives took it on the chin on November 7. To begin with, the condescending and pedantic Mr. Gore somehow managed to get 48.6 percent of the national popular vote to Bush’s 48.3 percent. And Gore did so by using unabashedly liberal rhetoric, trashing corporations while promising to fight for America’s working families. Moreover, as Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard has pointed out, for the first time since 1964, liberal presidential candidates won a majority of the popular vote: Gore and Ralph Nader combined for a grand total of 52 percent. Finally, Republicans lost their six-seat edge in the U.S. Senate and now hold a 50-50 tie in the upper chamber with the Democrats for the first time this century.

All this would be bad enough, without the widespreadand utterly falsemedia perception that George W. Bush ran a campaign that, as liberal-populist political analyst Ruy Teixeira of the Century Foundation put it, sought to blur differences on crucial policy issues between himself and Vice President Gore. Those who followed the campaign closely know the clear difference between Gore’s bureaucrat-centered approach to health care, Social Security reform, and education and Bush’s desire to devolve as much authority as possible to individuals and local institutions. But the perception of Bush as stealth conservative remains. Moreover, the extended wrangling over the election results may prevent a president-elect Bush from developing the political capital he needs to create the kind of bipartisan support that will be necessarily for him to pass the programs he and his supporters desire. Ongoing efforts by Bush’s opponents to delegitimize his narrow victory may further erode his political standing.

Without this crucial political capital, which is usually developed during the honeymoon phase surrounding a presidential inaugural, the president-elect’s political skills will undergo an enormous test. The old liberal lions of the Senate, led by Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and younger allies such as the newly minted Senator Clinton (D-NY), will try to make Bush sign off on a slew of liberal programs in the name of bipartisanship. And when Bush wisely refuses to take the bait, he’ll be blamed for gridlock and partisanship. Bush’s proposals, by contrast, will be subjected to painstaking and painful oversight from zealous congressional Democrats working in cahoots with Washington bureaucrats intent on preserving their programs and privileges.

All in all, the president-elect faces an enormous challenge. In this battle, however, Bush has two major weapons at his disposal. The first was honed during the Clinton-Gore years: the use of the executive order to enable agencies and federal departments to achieve what cannot be done legislatively. Executive orders, however, can only achieve so much, which means that the president will have to build that second weapon: a congressional majority that supports his agenda. Here, Bush should ignore the liberals and move to the center. His best bet would be to build a House majority around Southern conservative Blue Dog Democrats, most of whose districts he carried in last November’s presidential election. This coalition, though, will have to be counterbalanced in the Senate by a very different governing coalition, one led by Northeastern liberal Republicans such as Senators Collins (R-ME), Snowe (R-ME), Chaffee (R-RI), and Jeffords (R-VT). Unfortunate as it may seem to conservatives, these senators will be the key swing votes in the Senate. We’re in for some interesting times.

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