Is Bush Really Mr. Unifier?

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Speaker Pete Laney, a Texas Democrat, watches Bush make his acceptance speech

The theme of the post-post-election period has emerged: Bipartisanship and grit-your-teeth cooperation. And George W. Bush and Dick Cheney didn't waste any time hard-selling the concept. In an attempt to create an air of unity, Bush chose Pete Laney, Speaker of the Democrat-controlled Texas House of Representatives, to introduce Wednesday night's acceptance speech (which the president-elect delivered in the House chamber). But while Wednesday's rosy images played well on television, political insiders are hardly convinced that Bush's record in Texas will have any bearing on his success in Washington.

There are at least two (equally skeptical) views of Bush's bipartisan achievements in the Lone Star State. Some argue Bush succeeded because he learned (and excelled at) Texas's peculiar political culture. "In part," writes the New York Times' Jim Yardley, "Bush succeeded [in Texas] because his political style, built in part upon schmoozing and personal contact, played well in the backslapping culture of the Capitol."

Another, more cynical view holds that the governor never really proved himself as a "uniter" — that bipartisanship occurred naturally because there simply was no strong factional feeling in the first place. After all, Texas has a long tradition of a Democratic Party much different from the rest of the country. It's in part a remnant of the conservative Southern Democrats of old and partly the result of Texans seeing themselves as a state apart. As one political analyst told CNN Tuesday night, "Texas Democrats are like Texas Republicans wearing a thin layer of paint." Leadership in both parties bow equally deeply to the twin deities of conservatism: Tax cuts and less government. And certainly Bush's confabs with Speaker Laney, long considered a key broker of bipartisan support for Bush's proposals, have not prepared him for debates with Dick Gephardt or Trent Lott, congressional leaders who are making conciliatory noises now — but who are also known for their fierce partisanship.

And even if Washington does show signs of cooperation, one Beltway veteran pointed out to, there will be sharp disagreements over what issues to tackle first. "When you look at what legislation is considered ripe for bipartisan compromise, the two parties are split: The Democrats talk about coming together on campaign finance reform and a patients' bill of rights, while the Republicans want to focus on abolishing the estate tax or a ban on partial birth abortion." All issues that have garnered significant bipartisan support in the past — but not exactly the legislative trifles one might expect an evenly split Congress to tackle right off the bat.

All this cynicism is Bush's to shatter; he may yet prove himself capable of accomplishing what his father and Bill Clinton could not. But according to one staffer for a moderate House Democrat, Bush needs to move fast and recognize that any real push for cooperation can't be about lip service. "For the moment, anyway, everyone seems prepared to cooperate — and there will be, I think, a genuine effort to figure out what 'bipartisanship' really means," the staff member told Friday. "From our standpoint, it's about both Republicans and Democrats being in the room when bills are being written, so that everyone involved can say, 'We did this together.'"