Can Bush Heal The Nation?

A hollow victory and little political capital could vex consensus-building

When he first began to muse about a run for the White House, George W. Bush knew one thing for certain. He wanted to reduce destructive political warfare in a Washington that seemed to have lost its senses. The formative influences on the Texan's thinking aren't hard to divine. He was seared by the partisan firestorm Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior encountered over the aborted appointments of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court and Texas Senator John Tower to the Defense Dept. Bush was equally repulsed by Republicans' reaction: the harsh, in-your-face leadership style displayed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the wake of the GOP's 1994 takeover of the House of Representatives.

But little did Bush know that consensus-building would become the central focus of his Presidency--or that his very election was to be a catalyst for national division. After five agonizing weeks of legal wrangling over Florida's electoral votes, a Dec. 12 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ended the standoff with Democrat Al Gore and vaulted Bush to the Presidency. But the verdict of a deeply divided court, which endorsed the awarding of Florida's electoral votes to Bush without a full recount of contested ballots, was a bitter conclusion to a polarizing campaign, one that brought the nation to the brink of a Constitutional crisis. On Dec. 13, Gore made it official in a gracious concession speech.

Accepting Gore's concession, Bush promised to pursue a policy of "reconciliation and unity." Now, the emotionally spent and politically wounded GOP "victor" must prepare to govern a riven nation. "The circumstances of this victory are unique," sighs an exhausted Bush political adviser. "All we know now is that we'll have to govern differently than we planned."

By any measure, Bush faces a monumental task: healing a country that is at loggerheads over the role of government, whose citizens are alternately furious or triumphant over the bizarre conclusion to the election, and whose political institutions and legal system emerged from the five-week election ordeal arguably in worse shape than they began it. Both Bush and Gore seemed to shrink in stature as they dueled for public opinion and permitted finagling lawyers to bend at will such core principles as states' rights and equal protection. And nearly every official who went near the election swamp--from Florida's county canvassing boards all the way up to the nine robed justices of the Supreme Court--came away sullied.

BALKANIZATION. Though Bush has proven to be a savvy conciliator as Texas governor, the job he faces now is far more demanding. The Texas legislature has been likened to a giant trough at which powerful committee barons and a relatively weak governor share in a bipartisan feast. The Washington environment Bush is about to enter is far harsher and less susceptible to government-by-backslapping. The narrowness of Bush's electoral margin, his loss of the popular vote, and the partisan divisions in Congress have triggered fears of political balkanization.

The process of knitting Americans back together stands to become the overriding imperative of a Bush Presidency. But even among some of his partisans, there are worries about the Texan's abilities as a master weaver. In the weeks after Nov. 7, Bush often seemed eclipsed by his hired hands--chiefly Vice-President elect Richard B. Cheney and top legal strategist James A. Baker III. "The power of the Presidency is the power to persuade," says James Thurber, an American University political scientist. "Bush has fewer tools than most to persuade."

But that's precisely what Bush aims to do, starting well before Inauguration Day. Aides say he plans an extensive series of meetings with opposition leaders and has told his headhunters to cast a wider net and put more stress on diversity in the coming Bush Administration. That aside, in public comments from both Austin and Washington, the President-elect aims to make clear that he has absorbed the election's verdict and plans to tread cautiously in office.

That may not be enough, though. An immediate problem for Bush is the Supreme Court's abrupt halt to the election dispute and the hard feelings that have ensued. Rather than soothing ideological passions, as it did during the epochal struggle over civil rights, the High Court highlighted the gulf separating Americans. By snuffing out Gore's bid without a full recount, the Justices guaranteed that finger-pointing over the election would continue for years to come. "People think you go to the voting booth and your vote matters," sighs GOP operative David Carney. "The way this is ending, with some votes not counted, means public cynicism with government will be at an all-time high."

Victory on these terms could quickly turn hollow for the Republicans. That grim reality is already seeping into corporate executive suites. "Bush starts with major handicaps," says Craig L. Fuller, president of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and a former chief of staff in Bush pere's White House. "The polarization hurts. His transition is delayed. And it will be hard to make anything big happen."

With such a victory, Bush doesn't have the luxury to start off thinking big. He's huddling with his advisers--chiefly political guru Karl Rove and other members of his Austin high-command--to craft a Hundred Days Plan with a distinct emphasis on what's doable. That includes naming conservative Democrats, such as Texas Representative Charles W. Stenholm, to Cabinet jobs. Bush will also push legislation with a preexisting base of bipartisan support, such as education reform and modest health-care measures. And a series of high-profile speeches by the new President will attempt to drive home the notion that he aims to remake his agenda around national healing. "Conservatives have to understand--and I think will understand--that the public has spoken and Bush has to govern more in the center," says a top adviser.

Out of the spotlight, Bush has already begun the reconciliation process by reaching out to such centrist Democrats as Louisiana Senator John B. Breaux, whose views on private Social Security accounts he admires. "There has also been outreach coming from the other direction," says a Republican with ties to Austin. "We have been contacted by a number of top current and former Democratic officials, and the message is encouraging: `After this is over, we want to sit down and talk.' There will be a whole series of meetings to open lines to the other side."

No one wants to talk more than Bush. He knows the 2000 Presidential race was less a traditional electoral contest than a kind of surreal, bloodless civil war fought out among briefcase-toting lawyers. Now, as the dust begins to settle, the cost of the divisive fight is starting to emerge. While there are few, if any, clear-cut winners, there are truckloads of casualties, from the political system itself to Republican hegemony and confidence in the judiciary. Now that the fighting is subsiding, here's an early dispatch from the front lines:

-- The Miniature Presidency. With the country and Congress split down the middle, Bush could be a relatively powerless leader--one who has to content himself with signing a few dog-eared bills left over from the 106th Congress. "He doesn't start with much political capital," says Hudson Institute scholar Marshall Wittmann. "There are going to be a lot of modifiers that diminish his Presidency," asserts James Davis, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. "Bush will be known as the Accidental President, the Judicial President--or maybe the Florida President."

If that's the case, corporate chieftains who backed Bush in hopes that he would push a powerful pro-business agenda must lower their expectations. Many console themselves by noting that, even if the Texan ends up a custodial President, the Federal Reserve remains a rock of stability in uncertain times. "As long as Alan Greenspan is there, policy will be relatively steady," says Kenneth D. Pasternak, CEO of Knight Trading Group Inc., a financial trading firm. But talk of "President Greenspan" just reinforces the thought that Bush's leverage is limited--and makes the Texan look even smaller on the Washington landscape.

-- Frazzled Republicans. GOP partisans should be delirious over their capture of the White House. But the huzzahs are muted by realizations that the party's moment in the sun could be fleeting. Bush faces rising odds of a recession on his watch, and the brunt of public anger would initially fall on the GOP lawmakers who already face an uphill climb to retain congressional control in 2002.

The new President's puny power base will also strain the Republican coalition, since the conservative foot soldiers who feel they elected the Texan may see their wish list shredded. Hardliners will view a retreat from a bold social agenda as betrayal, raising the specter of intraparty bloodshed.

-- The Not-So-Loyal Opposition. Though they're cheered by Bush's bind, Hill Democrats are uncertain about how to play a Bush Administration that puts Dems in Cabinet jobs and moves to the center on issues such as a minimum-wage hike, a prescription-drug benefit, and patients'-rights legislation. The danger: They overplay their hand.

For the past two years, the game plan crafted by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) was a variant of the old wallet-on-a-string trick: talk compromise with GOPers while yanking the terms for accord just out of reach. That gave Democrats high-contrast election issues, rather than deals. Now, Hill observers caution, Democrats will have to be wary of obstructionism. Says one GOP lobbyist: "If Gephardt looks like he's just teeing up issues [for 2002] while Bush comes off like a sincere compromiser, the strategy could backfire."

-- The Boardroom Set. With handicappers predicting a Democratic takeover of Congress in the next by-elections, Republican business leaders predict a narrow six-month window next year for legislative action. And, as if business didn't have enough to worry about, managers of corporate political action committees are about to discover another downside of political parity: Both parties will now expect massive amounts of campaign cash. The mere threat of a Democratic House takeover this year pushed business interests to give 40% of their PAC money to Democrats, much to the dismay of Republicans.

With Democrats approaching the next election in a stronger position, demands for more corporate backing will soar, even as Republicans clamor for aid to hold their position. "Business PACs will be under tremendous cross-pressure," predicts Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.

-- Men and Women in Black. Although some Americans applaud the U.S. Supreme Court for ending the election deadlock, many others, joined by historians and legal scholars, fear the judiciary's reputation for impartiality has taken a hit during the protracted legal warfare. Its starkly differing dissenting opinions paint a picture of a High Court unable to agree on either a reasonable standard for Florida's vote counting or on the consequences of continued delay.

The yawning divide between conservatives and moderates on the court could fan the perception that, shorn of their black robes, jurists are also profoundly partisan. That could "be damaging for the judiciary," frets University of Chicago legal scholar Cass Sunstein. "Around a third of the people in the country think [the Supreme Court] acted in a partisan manner."

Are any winners emerging from this electoral morass? Probably not. But a future crisis deftly handled could permit the lightly regarded Bush to grow in stature. And if he succeeds in curbing partisan passions in a capital scarred by political mau-mauing, he will have gone a long way to accomplishing his central mission.

At the moment, experts don't see a Presidential race settled by a court-ordered karate chop as offering much in the way of national uplift. But give Bush this much credit: He at least sees the pickle he is in and is determined to transcend the pat predictions of disaster. Still, when George Walker Bush puts his hand on the Bible on Jan. 20, he had better pray hard--along with everyone else.

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