Posted on December 25, 2000 in Washington Watch

It has become a cliché to observe that George W. Bush won the presidency without a clear mandate to govern. He lost the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes and his party lost seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Bush, therefore, comes to the presidency facing a test to his oft-reported claim to being “a uniter and not a divider.”

In fact, while partisan fires are brewing in both the Republican and Democratic camps, as a result of the hotly contested election and its prolonged aftermath, recent polls are showing that there are no burning issues that are captivating public opinion. One such poll, for example, establishes that by a decisive margin the highest rated issue is “bringing the country together.”

If there was any message emerging from this year’s divided electorate it may very well have been that the public could not and did not want to choose between two polar opposites.

So now that the Texas Governor has come to Washington the victor, he must wind his way through the treacherous minefields of partisanship and seek to build an administration and a working relationship with Congress that can effectively govern for the next four years.

The test will not be an easy one and, as many observers have noted, his experiences in Texas will provide little help for the President-elect. One recent article noted that bringing Texas Democrats and Republicans together was comparatively easy, since mainstream Texas Democrats are conservative by national standards. The national Democratic leadership, on the other hand, still smarting from the way Bush won the presidency, has its own agenda. Both Senate and congressional Democrats have their eyes set on the 2002 elections and have strong hopes that in that contest they will gain sufficient seats to once again be the majority in control of both houses of Congress.

They will, therefore, be willing to seek compromises with Bush but not on principle and not at the expense of alienating their key constituencies. Democrats will be sensitive to the concerns of African Americans (who voted more than nine to one for Democrats) and Hispanics (who voted more than three to one for Democrats) and women and unions both of whom also voted substantially for Democrats.

The Democratic leader of the Senate, Thomas Daschle, recently expressed his willingness to work with the new Republican president but noted that if pushed he will not hesitate to block initiatives that Republicans attempt to force on the 50-50 split Senate.

The threat President-elect Bush faces from conservatives in his own party may, in the end, prove to be an even more difficult challenge. Conservatives feel that it was their effort that brought Bush to the White House and they have already laid down the gauntlet. According to an analysis in the Los Angeles Times, some conservatives have made it clear that “Bush owes his presidency to the born-again and religious conservative movement.” The article continues that this group is unwilling to accept “lip service” to their issues.

Religious conservative leaders like Pat Robertsen and Jerry Falwell have made clear whom they will accept and whom they will not accept in the next cabinet. And Gary Bauer, another leader of the religious right, promised “an unbelievable firestorm” if Bush appoints judges who are not anti-abortion and others to sensitive positions who are not sufficiently conservative.

Already one group of prominent conservative activists has announced the formation of a well-funded publican relations campaign called the “Issues Management Center,” (IMC). The purpose of the IMC will be to push the conservative agenda and, if necessary, to pressure President-elect Bush and keep him from “selling out.”

The picture is no less rosy in the Congress where hard-line congressional leader Tom Delay boasted that with Republicans now controlling the White House and the Senate and the House of Representatives he saw no reason for Republicans not to aggressively push through their agenda. Delay’s aggressive partisan approach to politics promises to be an especially difficult problem should Bush seek a more accommodationist approach to his relations with Congress.

The definition of bi-partisanship for Delay and his ilk in Congress is to lay out their program and to seek to win enough conservative Democrats to support it. The more centrist approach preferred by most Democrats and Republicans is to seek compromise first and then pursue a commonly agreed upon program.

Even without the new President’s efforts, this approach is being pursued independently by centrists in the U.S. Senate. Just last week a group of 26 Senators, almost evenly divided between the two parties, came together to explore possibilities for compromise. One of these Senators was John McCain, who fought his own battles against Governor Bush in the Republican presidential primary. McCain has made it clear that he intends to pursue his own bi-partisan legislative effort to pass a sweeping campaign finance reform bill. Bush opposed this during the election but may be confronted with a fait accompli if McCain succeeds.

Facing all those challenges, Bush has begun his efforts with a degree of caution. His early appointments of Colin Powell as Secretary of State and Paul O’Neill as Secretary of the Treasury have won praise from both Republicans and Democrats. While hard line conservatives have expressed their clear disapproval of Powell’s positions on many social issues, they are withholding their judgements on the Cabinet reserving their fire for the posts they care about most–Attorney General, Education and Defense. Several of those who Bush was thought to have favored for those posts have now bowed out since they never would have passed the conservative’s muster.

While Bush continues to insist that he will pursue his entire agenda with Congress, there are early signs that he may also exercise some caution here as well. Just last week, President-elect Bush assigned Vice President-elect Dick Cheney the job of congressional liaison. This is a novelty for a sitting Vice President and establishes that Cheney’s role in the Administration will almost certainly exceed that of Al Gore, who had an exceptionally powerful position as Vice President. Cheney, it appears, is being given a position almost akin to that of a Deputy President. As a former member of Congress, Cheney is respected on the Hill. His conservative credentials are well established, but so too are his skills as a “fixer.”

The question that Cheney must seek to answer is what early successes can Bush win in Congress. Such victories will be important if the Bush Presidency is to become established.

Clinton discovered this early on in his presidency. He was elected with a clear, economic program, but was distracted as others pushed the “gays in the military” issue on him as his first congressional challenge. Before he could recover from that distraction, foreign affairs crises in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia reared their heads.

Bush too will learn that external realities can wreck even the best-laid plans. He faces enormous challenges as he begins his presidency, but he will try to the best of his abilities to set his agenda and create a governing coalition that will give him the mandate the voters refused him.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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