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latimes.com: Victor needs imaginative thinking, compromise to court the other side

latimes.com (Los Angeles Times) -- Besides unsettling the stock markets and compelling many in the national press corps to spend far more time in Tallahassee than they ever expected, the bitter battle over Florida is both increasing the need for the next president to build bridges across party lines--and making it harder for him to do so.

Even before Florida rolled off the tracks, the remarkably close finish in this year's presidential election imposed on the winner the responsibility of unifying a country divided as evenly between the parties as at any time in the last 120 years. But the intense partisan hostility unleashed in Florida is complicating that task, even as it makes it more urgent.

Both George W. Bush and Al Gore have said that, if they win, they intend to strike a fresh start by appointing prominent members of the other party to their Cabinet. But in this environment, persuading a prospective Cabinet appointee to cross party lines is a little like looking for volunteers to charge across the trenches in World War I.

Republicans are so convinced that a Gore victory would amount to larceny that any GOP leader who accepted an appointment in a Gore administration would be immediately dismissed as a traitor. Indeed, Gore may face a Catch-22: Any Republican who accepted an appointment from him in this climate would be so discredited in the GOP that he or she couldn't much help the new president lower tensions anyway. Send a Gore Republican up to Capitol Hill, and he or she likely would come back, like quislings in wartime, with a shaven head.

The attitude toward a potential Bush administration isn't quite as toxic among Democrats. But the fury over Florida will surely make it tougher for a President Bush to recruit Democrats as well. During the campaign, Bush repeatedly praised the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and its members have been viewed as a potential source of unconventional appointees for his administration, if he wins. But Will Marshall, executive director of the DLC's think tank, says: "Right now, it is very polarized, and the behavior of the Bush camp is not calculated to foster warm and collaborative feelings among Democrats of any persuasion."

In any case, the early vibrations from the Bush camp don't yet suggest that he's thinking very imaginatively about how to reach across party lines. Except for Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), an eclectic thinker, the Democrats discussed as potential Bush Cabinet appointees have almost all been old-style Southern conservatives. Among them: former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn (who's already said he's not interested in serving as Bush's Defense secretary), Alabama Rep. Robert E. "Bud" Cramer Jr. (who's being mentioned as a possible Agriculture secretary), and Texas Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (who's also been floated for the Agriculture job, although some Bush insiders believe his frosty relations with Texas Republicans make him an unlikely choice).

But appointing any of these Southern Democrats wouldn't help Bush build connections to the suburban "New Democrat" movement in Congress that represents a much broader pool of opportunity for compromise on his domestic policy agenda. In fact, Marshall worries that the early focus on such names as Nunn and Cramer suggests that a President Bush might try to replicate President Reagan's strategy of passing his agenda by peeling away a thin layer of Southern conservative Democrats--a group known then as "boll weevils."

"It would be a grave mistake for the Republicans to assume they can replay the boll weevil strategy of the early 1980s," Marshall says. "George W. Bush is not Ronald Reagan. He would not come in with a strong tail wind of public support behind him, and he would not have a working majority in Congress."

Instead, Marshall argues that Bush--or Gore, for that matter--can only hope to succeed in this closely divided Congress by offering compromises that attract broad support across the center of the opposition party. That's a good point, but it may be a tough approach to sell in this divisive atmosphere. Liberals haven't raised red flags yet about possible Gore overtures to the GOP, but conservatives are already warning Bush about cuddling too much with Democrats they believe are trying to steal the election.

In an editorial last week, the conservative National Review argued that a President Bush should pursue a "conservative bipartisanship" that seeks to attract conservative Democrats to core Republican ideas rather than trying to integrate into his agenda Democratic priorities that could attract wider support in Congress. Republican House leaders see it the same way.

"There's an old-fashioned anachronistic notion that you could have a Republican presidency that built some sort of coalition of moderate Republicans and some Democrats," insists one House Republican leadership aide. "But that's a model of vote-growing that doesn't apply to the modern Congress--and George W. Bush understands that."

So far, Bush hasn't given the right much reason to worry. In his speech after he was certified as Florida's winner a week ago Sunday, Bush repeatedly called for bipartisanship. But as possible arenas of agreement he mentioned only the ideas he ran on--most prominently tax cuts, education reform and a market-oriented restructuring of Social Security and Medicare. He sent similar signals Saturday in his meeting with GOP congressional leaders.

A President Bush might be able to make progress in some of those areas. Both Capitol Hill Republicans and Bush aides note that the new president could score some quick victories by reviving legislation that passed Congress with votes from Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Democrats over the last two years only to be vetoed by President Clinton. Bills that fall into that category include a reduction in the marriage penalty, the elimination of the estate tax and a ban on partial-birth abortion.

But on his largest priorities--income-tax rate cuts, education and entitlement reform--a President Bush would be unlikely to succeed without broader Democratic support. (If nothing else, Bush can't rely just on conservative Democrats to break filibusters in what will be a 50-50 Senate because there simply aren't enough of them.) Republicans are right that a President Gore would face virtually open warfare on Capitol Hill if he squeezes out a Florida victory. But a President Bush's situation might not be much better unless he displays more creativity in courting the other side than he has displayed so far.

Associated Press news material shall not be published, broadcast, rewritten for broadcast or publication or redistributed directly or indirectly in any medium.




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Monday, December 4, 2000

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