Bush's Phony 'Bipartisanship'
That's exactly what GOP strategists are counting on. Already, William F. Buckley's National Review is promoting what it calls "conservative bipartisanship'' along Reagan/Boll Weevil lines. And while Democrats chuckle over the damage done to Bush's presidency by the Florida fiasco, National Review tells its audience--correctly--that "close elections, even those tainted by allegations of illegitimacy, need not spell doom for the winner. John F. Kennedy became president by a slim popular-vote margin, but his administration reassured a nervous public. The Democrats had a very good election in 1962, losing only four seats in the House and gaining three in the Senate, and won a landslide in 1964.''
Faced with the prospect of another "weakened presidency" turning out to be stronger than anyone expected, the question is: Who will fight the Bush agenda? Senate minority leader Tom Daschle will have his hands full with a caucus that includes Bush's buddy Breaux and several other right-leaning Southerners. Indeed, it appears that Bush's biggest Senate "crisis'' may be the determination of Republican John McCain, Bush's primary opponent, and Democrat Russ Feingold to attach their campaign finance reform bill to key pieces of legislation. Republicans are furious at McCain for his genuine acts of bipartisanship--both on the campaign finance issue and with his tacit endorsement of Daschle's appeals for power-sharing in the Senate. Yet McCain continues to reject urging from Lott and others to smooth the way for Bush.
The first real test for Senate Democrats will involve their handling of Bush's appointments; GOP senators in 1993 showed with their aggressive, issue-oriented questioning of Clinton's Cabinet picks that the approval process is ripe with opportunities for embarrassing a new administration. There will definitely be a fight over Bush's selection of archconservative John Ashcroft as Attorney General, but Bush has made equally troubling appointments at second-tier positions--like that of Ann Veneman as Agriculture Secretary and Spencer Abraham as Energy Secretary. Watch for Democratic Senators Paul Wellstone and Tom Harkin to use key committee perches to open the debate about the Bush Administration's direction. But don't expect many Bush picks to be rejected or even held up for long.
In the House, where the partisan divide runs deeper, minority leader Dick Gephardt knows the importance of developing a coherent plan of attack. Yet he is hamstrung by threats from potential party-switchers and the natural inclination of many DLC members to sympathize with Bush policies on education, health reform and military spending. Additionally, Gephardt and other Democratic leaders worry about pushing so hard they're labeled as "too partisan'' Democratic versions of House GOP whip Tom DeLay and his minions. Gephardt must also devote energy to redistricting fights that, if they go awry, could cost Democrats a dozen or more seats. This year, state legislatures and governors will be using the 2000 census to draw district lines for the next Congress, a process that could have as much impact on partisan divisions in the next House as anything Bush does. On top of all these other demands, Al Gore's fallen star has turned at least some of Gephardt's attention to the prospect of mounting a presidential run in 2004.
Well aware of these facts, progressive Democrats are not waiting for the generals to sound the charge. "Florida is over. That fight is done. We can and we should continue the struggle for voting reforms that expand our democracy, but we have to recognize that this is just one of the issues we have to focus on in what is going to be a very dangerous period of great struggle,'' argues Jackson. He'll work with both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus--where fury at the way in which Bush was elected bubbled over in late December with threats by veteran members to boycott the Bush inaugural. Jackson can muster equal fury, and he'll be at January demonstrations led by his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, but he says the primary focus must be on the legislative battles that could begin even before Bush is sworn in. "I share the frustration over what happened in Florida, but I'm telling you that we simply cannot let ourselves get sidetracked," he says. "We need to stay off George W. Bush's message. We need to offer an alternative on every issue.''
One area where the alternative may become clear quickly is in the fight over whether the Florida debacle will lead to genuine electoral reform. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has moved to head off serious review of the Florida election mess by proposing hearings on what went wrong in 2000 and by offering tepid reforms. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, in contrast, is seeking to require the Federal Election Commission to produce a plan for avoiding future Floridas; he wants to allocate $250 million to help state and local election officials improve voting procedures. Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio, outgoing chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is advancing a bill to establish a federal election-review commission. And members of the Congressional Black Caucus can be expected to push for review of policies that depress participation by African-Americans and other minority groups.
But the real fights are likely to be over economic issues--particularly taxation. Progressives say they see genuine opportunities to identify differences between the aspirations of conservatives and those of the great mass of Americans. "Progressive populist politics is a majority politics, and we cannot forget that, especially on these tax issues,'' says Wellstone. "Most Americans don't think billionaires should get a tax cut.'' Sanders wants progressives--and, ideally, the Democratic caucus--to offer an alternative budget proposal. "We need to say what could be done with those billions to provide young people with college education, to provide children with basic healthcare, to create a safety net for family farmers in a rapidly altering global marketplace,'' he says.