Avoid getting swept up in election sweep

Posted: Nov 08, 2002 12:00 AM
The election results were great news. The unanswered question is: Great news for whom? Already the Democrats are spinning -to the point of risking scrotal torsion -that having both legislative branches as well as the White House is bad news for Republicans. "Now that they'll have to govern, they won't have anybody to blame but themselves when things go wrong," Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt say in a tone similar to the one used by children when they grumble, "I didn't want to go their stupid party, anyway." Of course, they're right. Winning complete, if precarious, control of the entire government carries huge risks for Republicans. But that's life. Your first at-bat in the major league carries huge risks too, but if you wanted to be a professional ballplayer you wouldn't turn down the opportunity. The Republicans could easily overreach, as they did under Newt Gingrich after the success of the Contract With America, or as the Democrats did during the first two years of the Clinton Administration. After all, Clinton's health care and gays-in-the-military fiascoes largely created the Republican juggernaut in 1994, and the GOP's approach to the government shutdown and, later, impeachment caused Bill Clinton's approval ratings to soar and gave nearly unprecedented victories to Democrats in the 1998 off-year elections. Now, don't get me wrong, I was certainly pro-impeachment, and if I had my druthers, the government would be shut down on most of the days of the week that end in "y." But as a matter of practical politics and public perception, parties get into trouble when they seem to get too far out ahead of the public. As a matter of policy, I'd love to see a sharp right turn. But as a matter of politics, I think the Republicans would be crazy to do it. President Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove have the opportunity to turn the Republican Party into the majority party in the country for the next few decades. That will mean governing from the middle much of the time, because that's how you grow a party. This will be hard work for Bush and for the conservative base, which has a history of impatience. Conservatives need to learn that governing from the middle doesn't mean conservative goals can't be accomplished, but it does mean they can't all be accomplished at once. And the very first thing Bush and the Republican Senate must do to assure conservatives they're not going wobbly is to nominate and confirm a lot of good judges. All of this runs major risks for the Republican Party. If they can govern successfully, the GOP could run things the way the Democrats did from the 1930s thru the 1950s, not counting the Eisenhower hiccup. If they screw up (especially on the economy), the Democrats will swoop in in 2004 and probably take back everything they've lost, including the White House. But the risks are high for the Democrats, too. Amid the blame-shifting and finger-pointing, it already appears that they are all too willing to form their firing squads in a circle. It appears likely that they will replace Dick Gephardt with Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat who talks and looks like a caricature of the sort of Democrat moderates can't stand. Other than the rush to get a woman into the leadership, the main reason Pelosi is the inside favorite for minority leader is that liberals in the party claim that they got trounced this year because they didn't more forcefully oppose a war in Iraq and didn't attack the Bush tax cut enough. The base didn't come out because the Democrats looked like Republicans, they argue. There may be some truth in this analysis, though I'm at a loss to understand how it explains the GOP victories in Florida or Minnesota. Regardless, this logic could force the Democrats into precisely the positions George Bush would want them to take. The reason this last election was tight was that Republicans and Democrats were fighting over a tiny number of moderate undecideds in the political center. The Democrats are now saying that they would have been better off to rev-up the base with strident anti-war and pro-tax rhetoric. What they don't mention is that such lefty positions probably would have repelled as many moderates and centrists as it attracted Democratic diehards. That holds true for the 2002 election, and it holds true for the future. You become a rump party when you put ideological purity over governing. If the Democrats conclude that they should move to the left just as the country is inching to the right, they will give Bush all the maneuvering room he needs.