Next President may not face gridlock

By Richard E. Cohen and Burt Solomon

November 14, 2000

It is eerie how evenly divided the electorate was on Nov. 7, and not only in the presidential race. The total votes cast nationally for Democrats and Republicans for the 435 House races were dead even. The same held true for the 34 Senate contests and the 11 races for governor. In exit polls, half the voters said they were better off financially than they were four years ago, and half said they weren't; self-described independents went 47 percent for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, and 45 percent for Vice President Al Gore.

"The swing voters didn't swing--they split," said Gary Langer, an analyst for ABC News.

Is this precise bisection something scary? Probably not. "The country is evenly divided over things that aren't that important," says Mark S. Mellman, a Democratic pollster who has been close to the Gore campaign. He contrasts prescription drugs and tax cuts--leading issues in this still-to-be-concluded presidential campaign--with slavery and civil rights.

The even-steven split of the electorate may be evidence that, nationwide, the two major parties have at last achieved something like parity. A. James Reichley, a Washington expert on political parties, says that Democrats still slightly out-register Republicans, but that in voting behavior, each party "claims just about half of the electorate." Or maybe it is merely a measure of how little was really at stake in this election, at a blessedly boring time of peace and prosperity; or of how unappealing the respective candidates were to voters of the other political persuasion, after a long campaign that often was about nothing larger than itself.

This was fine with the public, which hasn't been demanding that very much be done. And why should it? "These are the best of times," says Richard P. Nathan, the director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y., and so "it is best to not rock the boat.... This is not a time for hot-button, hotly debated changes." Before the election, an important Republican lawmaker said privately: "Most Americans don't want us to produce a lot."

The longer and nastier the battle over the White House becomes, of course, the greater the chances that these ever-lower expectations will be met. The bitter feelings that are sure to remain (stirring the emotional embers from impeachment) can only make it harder for Washington to get anything done during the next two to four years, no matter who is in the White House. A mandate, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, and on election night, even Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., acknowledged on CNN that Bush, if elected, "may not have a sweeping mandate" from such an ambivalent electorate. Neither would-be President is likely to cast into lawmakers' hearts the fear of an angry electorate, which is probably the deepest and truest source of power behind an honest-to-God electoral mandate.

A Ray of Hope

Be prepared, however, to be surprised: The next President may well get considerably more accomplished than the quickly coalescing wisdom in Washington suggests. Bush's chances would seem to be stronger than Gore's. "In a perverse sort of way," political scientist Earl Black of Rice University surmised the day after the election, "Bush has a real opportunity here to succeed, even though the nation itself is sharply divided."

It won't be easy--especially with Congress so evenly divided. "It obviously is going to be difficult on the part of anybody to put together majorities," says Howard G. Paster, who was President Clinton's top lobbyist on Capitol Hill from 1993-95.

And no matter how the current saga ends, it will only get harder to end the bickering in Washington, something Bush said again and again on the stump that he wishes to do. He would need to appeal to at least a cluster of congressional Democrats if he is to have any hope of cobbling together a governing majority, while keeping the loyalties of his purported friends. One of the psychological thrillers in a Bush presidency would be whether Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, on behalf of other hard-charging Republican conservatives, would heed calls for a bipartisan tone or fulfill the role that Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia played for Bush's dad-a determined obstacle to a fellow Republican in the White House.

The noises from Capitol Hill in the wake of the election certainly sounded conciliatory enough. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., said, "We should ... work in a bipartisan way." Amid talk that a President-elect Bush would invite conservative Democrats in the House to Austin, Texas, one of their leaders, Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, D-Texas, said in an interview: "With the new administration, you're going to see a change in the atmosphere."

James A. Thurber of American University, an expert in executive-congressional relations, guessed that maybe 10 to 15 House Democrats might respond to a bipartisan call, roughly half of the 25 to 30 that Bush would probably need to get much of anything done.

But there is reason to think that Bush might find some success. "If we reach out at the beginning of the process, the opportunity is there to build a bipartisan consensus," Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who is close to the Bush campaign, said in an interview the day after the election. "Substantial numbers of Democrats will be willing to work with us. At least one-fourth of House Democrats really want to accomplish something for their constituency, if they are dealt with fairly by us." James Cicconi, a veteran of past Republican White Houses who has helped the younger Bush's campaign, suggests that "both parties will be compelled by politics, and by people's expectations, to come together."

The political environment, in many respects, would be favorable. Bush would be one up on his father in facing a Congress run by Republicans, not by Democrats. That would enable like-minded (or, at least, like-partied) politicians to run the congressional committees and to control the schedule and procedures for action on the floor-an awesome power, especially in the more rule-bound House.

Money Always Helps

Bush could also benefit from a fiscal environment far more buoyant than his dad ever had. Even if the expiring 106th Congress indulges in an orgy of appropriations--as it did before the election, even though some of these might be undone during the coming lame-duck session, which now appears likely to extend into December--the 43rd President and the 107th Congress would still have plenty to spend. According to Robert D. Reischauer, the president of the Urban Institute and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, the CBO's latest preliminary (though unreleased) estimates show that the projected budget surplus will show "at least as much money and probably more, conceivably a good deal more," than Congress had figured on before.

In the flashiest item on his campaign agenda--a gigantic, across-the-board tax cut--Bush might find some solace. To pass a tax cut, says Cicconi, Bush would have to work with congressional Democrats and "be prepared to address a lot of their concerns." This suggests a smaller tax cut, with less of a focus on estate taxes, than candidate Bush proposed. But Reischauer, for one, suspects that the Democrats would be hard-pressed to fend off a politically appealing tax cut without an offer of their own.

Bush, if elected, could also accomplish something on health care and education. Democrats and Republicans alike are eager to start subsidizing prescription drugs for the elderly, a subsidy that Bush has tied in with a larger fling at reforming the Medicare program. Both parties may want to do something concrete on that--and also on a patients' bill of rights--before they face voters in 2002. Republican strategists are also banking on an education package that includes, for starters, a program to let parents in underachieving schools use governmental resources to send their children to private (and maybe parochial) schools. This program might give Bush, mindful of the support in many inner cities for an alternative to failing public schools, an opportunity to reach out to members of the Black Caucus.

Unless he concludes that his campaign proposal to let younger workers invest some of their contributions in private investment accounts costs him a clear victory in Florida, Bush might also try his hand at restructuring the politically volatile Social Security program. "Exit polls showed that Social Security reform was a reason for voters to support him," said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is close to Bush's policy advisers. But the program's finances are safe for another 10 to 12 years, and the political and technical complexities may demand prudence from Bush; he might set up a blue-ribbon commission to craft a bipartisan approach and to build up public support.

Combined, these accomplishments would be nothing like a New Deal or a Reagan-like sharp turn in the nation's direction. Under no circumstances should people expect a policy-flourishing first 100 days. But the country, not facing an economic depression or double-digit interest rates, does not want one. Voters' expectations are low--and probably falling daily. Their ideals won't be hard to meet or exceed.

The caveat for Bush is that personal charm may have its limits. In an inaugural address, Bush could easily repeat--without even having to rekeyboard--the sentiments that his father, the 41st President, uttered in his 1989 inaugural address: The American people "didn't send us here to bicker" but rather "to rise above the merely partisan." Well, that was a dozen years ago, and nobody listened then-or has since. So could a second President Bush, younger and less experienced, pull it off? There's every reason to be skeptical.

"Just because George Bush wants comity and sings 'Kumbaya,' " says Thurber, "it's not going to work politically." For one thing, unabashedly assertive interest groups--labor unions, businesses, and the elderly--will still want what they want, and will press lawmakers to resist what the White House wants.

The Gore Outlook

Low expectations would work in Gore's favor as well, if he should wind up in the White House. Not a lot else would. Republican congressional leaders pretty much detest him (especially, by one account, since his Nov. 4 characterization of the presidential race as a matter of good vs. evil). Nor does Gore, who is something of a loner, share the natural schmoozing skills of his political mentor President Clinton. In getting along with Congress, Gore "should aspire to be as good as Clinton," says a well-placed aide to a Democratic liberal on Capitol Hill, "but I doubt he would make it." An aide to a Democratic conservative describes Gore as aloof and distant, and less sensitive to lawmakers' political needs than Clinton has been.

A Gore administration may be little different from Clinton's, except there would be more tension between the White House and congressional Republicans. Unlike Clinton, who ordinarily does what his pollsters tell him, "Al Gore actually believes some of the things he's saying," and he would try to put his "strident liberal ideology" into practice, says an aide to a conservative House Republican. But he isn't as skilled in communicating as Clinton is, the aide added. Gore's political opponents would probably "fare much better in a public clash with Al Gore than we did in public clashes with Bill Clinton."

As a creature of Washington, though, and of Congress in particular, Gore may have a better intuitive feel than Clinton does about the political turf. He served eight years in each chamber and occasionally indulged in bipartisanship, as he did on defense and telecommunications matters in the Senate. Gore might be able to pick up support from a smattering of moderate Republicans and pass a few things, such as prescription drug subsidies, a patients' bill of rights, some investment in education, and maybe some of the targeted tax cuts he proposed during the campaign. Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., said in an interview that Gore "does not have many personal relations" with members of Congress. But, he added, "I don't think Republican moderates are going to turn our backs on anyone."

But other Republicans are dubious, pointing out that the election and the contested result would leave Gore in such a weakened position that bipartisanship may be elusive. "Al Gore has shown that he has a harder edge than Bill Clinton and that he is willing to win at all costs," said a senior House GOP aide. "The greater ideal of American democracy is secondary to him." Although it's possible that Gore could win House passage for parts of his agenda, the Republican aide added, "some in the Senate would say, `screw you,' and teach him about the filibuster."

Congressional Democrats have barely begun to focus on how a Gore administration would function in the wake of the bruising election aftermath, but some contend that he must follow Clinton's path. "We have to govern from the center out, as Clinton demonstrated, and Gore can do that," said a House Democratic leadership aide. Gore ought to work first on his priorities--campaign finance reform and patients' rights laws--because, in each case, the measures have bipartisan support and the public wants action, the aide added. During the past two years, Clinton and Congress pressed each other on those issues, but neither side showed much willingness to reach common ground. And complicating Gore's task is his indebtedness to the groups who voted for him in large numbers--African-Americans and union members. These groups may take a harder line than Gore on many issues and hurt his chances for compromise.

If Gore is politically supple enough, though, he could possibly turn his disregard for fellow Democrats' opinions into a legislative plus, by pursuing a truly bipartisan approach on issues such as tax cuts and entitlement reform and trying to strike deals with mainstream Republicans, much as Clinton did on welfare reform and in balancing the federal budget. Bipartisanship isn't something Gore talked about during his campaign--he preferred a populist, confrontational tone.

But during White House strategy sessions in the soon-to-end administration, Gore showed himself more willing than Clinton to buck pressure from elsewhere in the Democratic Party. "He would be temperamentally suited to take the risk down the middle," says Patrick J. Griffin, who served as Clinton's top congressional lobbyist during 1995-96, "but whether the Republicans would be receptive and/or see it in their self-interest--that's the question." The alternative, however, may be gridlock.

But if either man succeeds, he may well have Clinton to thank. As an activist President in a relatively unhistoric era, Clinton talked loudly and carried a small stick. He filled the stage but, in the vast scale of history, didn't do a hell of a lot. It was enough, though, to earn him two terms in office and, everything considered, a decent measure of success.

Staff correspondent David Baumann and National Journal News Service correspondent David Hess contributed to this report.


By Richard E. Cohen and Burt Solomon

November 14, 2000

http://www.govexec.com/federal-news/2000/11/next-president-may-not-face-gridlock/7976/