Can Bush Bring Us Together?

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A few hours before he conceded the election, Al Gore was on the phone with his old friend Norm Dicks, a Democratic Congressman from Washington State. Allies since 1977, when both were House freshmen, Gore and Dicks stayed in touch during the last roller-coaster days of the 2000 contest. Now that it was over, Dicks told the Vice President, "you've done all you could do. You'll have another day." Gore giggled nervously and said, "I'm not so sure about that." Dicks could hear the hurt in his voice. "He won Florida," Dicks told Time, "and should be President of the United States."

The anger that swept Capitol Hill last week, as Democrats struggled to accept the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to stop the Florida recount and award the presidency to George W. Bush, wasn't confined to Gore's friends. Since he doesn't have many of those on the Hill, the emotions triggered by his loss caught many House and Senate Democrats by surprise. A week before, they had been eager for the end, dismissive of Gore's strategy and above all worried that the cursed election would have to be decided in their chambers. How can we miss you, they seemed to be telling Gore, if you won't go away?

Then he did go away - because the Supreme Court handed down a decision that felt more partisan than principled - and Democrats were outraged. Some Senators predict titanic battles if Bush gets to nominate new Supreme Court Justices. Some House members predict titanic battles over just about anything that happens in 2001. Aggrievement is a handy political tool, of course, and some of it no doubt is being manufactured by politicians who would love to see Bush fail so they could pick up seats in 2002. But even as lawmakers speak publicly of bipartisanship and healing, they speak privately of the deep pessimism that has settled over Washington. One hears it not simply from liberals but also from moderates in both parties who had been bullish about Bush's chance for success. "I'm in the realism category now," says Representative Charles Stenholm, a conservative Texas Democrat who had radiated optimism just days before. "It's going to be difficult."

Even Gore's note-perfect concession speech - brief, unbowed, ruefully funny and unabashedly patriotic - carried a dire subtext. The Vice President quoted Stephen Douglas' concession to Abraham Lincoln after the 1860 election: "Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you." But when Douglas offered those uplifting words, the nation was weeks away from the Civil War.

It's almost obscene to compare Bush's predicament to Lincoln's. But it is true that Bush must unify a divided nation. He lost the popular vote by 337,000, and many Americans believe he lost Florida and thus the electoral contest as well - and a non-binding, after-the-fact recount could end up reaching the same conclusion around the time he takes office. The man who promised to be "a uniter, not a divider" - who warned Republicans that the Party of Lincoln hasn't always heeded the message of Lincoln - ended up fighting in the courts to prevent the recount of ballots cast largely by Americans who are black, poor, and/or elderly. The man who promised to be a different kind of Republican may owe his office to an old-fashioned Republican network - the allies of his brother, the Florida Governor, and the Republican appointees on the nation's highest court.

Now that man must find a way to restore confidence in America's political and judicial institutions - and prove that he understands the dimensions of the problem and doesn't see it as just a P.R. snafu that can be addressed through a few nice speeches. Armed with a feeble mandate from the voters, he must steer his program through a divided Congress - a thin G.O.P. majority in the House, a 50-50 tie in the Senate, with Vice President Dick Cheney the deciding vote. As the President-elect knows, he may end up getting fewer headaches from the revenge fantasies of liberal Democrats than from the dreams of political domination being indulged by conservative Republicans. While Bush begins coping with all that, the economy is showing sobering signs of recession: slumping sales, sagging markets, cooling consumer confidence and pre-emptive layoffs at such major corporations as Whirlpool, Chase Manhattan Bank and General Motors.

In other words, Bush is perfectly positioned for a stunning, Truman-like rise to presidential leadership. At least, that's how he sees the situation. "It is a unique moment, and I intend to seize it," Bush told Time. "It is an opportunity for both Republicans and Democrats to show the country that we can come together. The closeness of the election provides an opportunity for people who care more about their country than they do their political party S? History's going to look back and say both parties came together and were able to grasp this moment. I view it as a very positive opportunity. I'm not the least bit concerned."

Throughout his brief, meteoric political career, Bush has benefited from rock-bottom expectations. No way could he defeat Texas Governor Ann Richards in 1994. No way could he go toe to toe with Gore during the debates last fall. And no way can he succeed as President now. But Bush is convinced that his powers of persuasion are so unique and irresistible that he will succeed in healing the nation and building consensus. And so he sets out to prove the know-it-alls wrong once more. This time there's so much at stake that only his most churlish enemies could root against him.

Bush began to think about healing weeks ago. He and his aides realized that no matter when victory came, he'd have to offer the nation a poem of reconciliation. His speechwriter, Mike Gerson, began writing the words a week before Bush finally delivered them inside the Democratic-controlled Texas state house of representatives. Communications director Karen Hughes was scared to look at the draft, even after the Supreme Court halted the recount. "She was too superstitious," says an aide. "It felt like a curse."

One goal of the speech was for Bush to reach out to Gore - and through him to all the embittered Democrats wondering if they could rally behind the Republican. Gore's graceful concession helped, and Bush tried to build on that. "We wanted to communicate an understanding of the pain that Gore went through," says media adviser Mark McKinnon, who had a hand in the speech. From there, Bush's words didn't soar, but they did provide a creative answer to the central problem of governing without a mandate: fudging the differences between Bush's agenda and Gore's, claiming a mandate based on the issues both men ran on. "We differed about the details of these proposals," he said, "but there was remarkable consensus about the important issues before us: excellent schools, retirement and health security, tax relief, a strong military, a more civil society. We have discussed our differences. Now it is time to find common ground."

But glossing over big policy differences - pretending that a consensus about problems is the same as a consensus about solutions - can get Bush only so far. Two weeks after he takes the oath of office, Bush will have to present his budget and agenda to Congress. When he does, the fights will begin. Bush's honeymoon with Congress, if you want to call it that, appears to have lasted 14 hours: from the time Gore conceded until 11 o'clock the next morning, when the Republican Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert, told reporters that Bush should pursue tax cuts "a piece at a time," passing estate-tax and marriage-penalty reform instead of the sweeping $1.3 trillion proposal Bush campaigned on. Hastert tried to backpedal the next day, but key Republicans have told Cheney the same thing, and their words serve as a reminder, should anybody need one, that Bush will take office with little or no political capital to spend. Even the "easy" issues put him in a box. If education reform is the first bill he sends to Congress, he'll find some common ground for his focus on tough achievement standards. But if he pushes his campaign promise to cut funding for underperforming school districts and use the money for private-school vouchers, he'll face buzz-saw opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans. And if he doesn't push ahead with that plan, his conservative base will have its first betrayal.

For now, smoothing over differences is the priority. Bush sent Cheney to Capitol Hill on the day Gore conceded to start building coalitions. The Vice President- elect met separately with moderate and conservative groups - and both sides came away pleased and reassured. Conservatives hear a big tax cut coming. Moderates believe education reform and prescription drugs will be the priority. One faction or the other is getting played, but it's impossible to tell which side.

On one point, at least, the Bush message has been remarkably consistent. Bush told Time - and Cheney has told Republican leaders - that he will not settle for a scaled-down version of his campaign agenda. The man who predicted a decisive victory now argues that scratching out a win in the closest election in a century equals a mandate. He wants it all: education, a prescription-drug benefit, tax cuts and private Social Security accounts. "The reason I will be able to deliver an Inaugural Address," Bush insisted in an interview with Time, "is because of the positions I took, the cases I made."

Moderates see such remarks as Bush's opening song, the overture that comes before the inevitable compromises. "There's going to be a new world order in the Senate," says Maine Republican Olympia Snowe. "We can't always get our way. We don't have the numbers." But conservatives won't let him off the hook. Republican strategists who helped shape Newt Gingrich's Contract with America are launching a new group called the Issues Management Center. It will wage an ad war designed to pressure Bush to stand up for a conservative agenda of issues - tax cuts, school vouchers and Social Security privatization.

Bush won't say if or where he might compromise. "I'm not playing my cards at the beginning of the game," he told Time. But while the cards are dealt, Bush is grabbing a chance to charm the other players. In the days after his victory speech, he placed calls to Democratic leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, and had a conciliatory phone chat with Jesse Jackson. He named Colin Powell to be his Secretary of State. And he invited Senator John Breaux, the affable, respected Louisiana Democrat who authored a bipartisan plan last year to reform Medicare, down to Austin.

The rumors had Bush asking Breaux to serve in his Cabinet, but Bush never got the chance. Over plates of enchiladas, Breaux began by telling Bush, "I want to stay in the Senate." Bush never revisited the issue, and the discussion moved on to Congress, with Breaux offering advice. "I suggested that he start with things that would be easier to develop a consensus on, as opposed to the difficult issues," Breaux told Time. "I suggested election reform, education reform and a patients' bill of rights. I also suggested that on some of the other issues, such as Medicare and Social Security, it was going to take a little time to develop consensus."

On Capitol Hill these days, each competing bloc defines bipartisanship in a different way - and no one yet knows precisely how Bush defines it. Does he mean recruiting a few Democrats to decorate conservative Republican policies? Democratic leaders call that the "politics of pickoff" and vow to fight it with the kind of party discipline that can stop a bill in its tracks - especially in the Senate, where the Republicans need 10 Democrats to shut down debate and force a vote. "After two decades of hardened partisanship in the Senate," says Al From of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, "I just don't see 10 Democrats jumping over to the Republican side on any significant issue."

Bush's other alternative is to define bipartisanship as governance from the center, with members of both parties helping shape and steer legislation. Republicans say, correctly, that the Democrats who are calling for this brand of bipartisanship are pursuing a "wedge strategy," trying to create a schism between G.O.P. moderates and conservatives. "The Democrat view of bipartisanship is, Do it their way," Republican whip Tom DeLay, the fiery G.O.P. leader, told Time. "The true burden of bipartisanship is on the minority." In other words, he wants Bush to use the pickoff strategy.

How Bush sails these choppy waters will determine his legislative fate. He can make it to the lee shore, but to do so, he needs to navigate past three looming obstacles. Their names are Daschle, DeLay and McCain.

Behind closed doors, the Democrats are divided between liberal hard-liners, who want guerrilla war, and moderates, who fear that such a war would destroy them as well as Bush. In the 50-50 Senate, the decision about which way to go will be made by Tom Daschle, the mild-mannered, tough-minded Democratic leader. While bitter power-sharing negotiations continue between Daschle and majority leader Trent Lott, revenge fantasies focus on Cheney, the tie-breaking Republican vote. The Vice President-elect now has two offices on Capitol Hill, the traditional one on the Senate side and a cubbyhole on the House side that Hastert gave him as a courtesy. Democrats are talking about making Cheney come to the Hill for so many votes that he'll end up living there - perhaps impairing his ability to manage the rest of Bush's government. Says Republican Senator Charles Grassley: "We need to get him a cot."

Daschle is keeping an eye on Breaux, who is trying to forge a bipartisan voting bloc called the Senate Centrist Coalition, one of many moderate groups now springing up like mushrooms after a Florida rain. Breaux could pose a threat to Daschle's Democratic unity and to his status as the ultimate go-to Democrat in the Senate - a role Daschle has no intention of relinquishing. "Unless President-elect Bush can develop a working relationship with Tom, he's not going to get a lot out of the Democrats," says New Mexico Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman. That's the message Daschle wants Bush to hear.

Bush's worst nightmare may not be the Democrats. There's an old saying on Capitol Hill: your worst enemies are often your friends. Bush learned why on Dec. 6, when Tom DeLay, the former exterminator from Texas who is known as "the Hammer," summoned reporters to his office to announce that G.O.P. leaders planned to "act the same way we have been" - ramming through bills without Democratic support. His words reminded Bush and his advisers of the "potential challenge" DeLay poses, says a Republican Congressman close to Bush. "He is ideologically to the right of Bush and in style tends to be more partisan. They acknowledge that, and the fact that he has a nice following. He's the most effective leader in Congress on the nuts and bolts. You want him on your team." Austin hopes DeLay will fall into line behind Bush's agenda, which, after all, isn't exactly McGovernite. But the Bush camp doesn't know how far DeLay will let them go in accommodating moderates before he bolts - and takes his following with him.

DeLay is playing nice these days. Democrats, he told Time, "are going to have a hard time making me the bogeyman, particularly in this notion that George Bush and I don't get along. Are you kidding? I'm going to carry his agenda and our agenda. I'll do everything I can to put together the coalitions to make his agenda happen."

The first bill to land on President Bush's desk next year could end up being his first big problem. Senator John McCain, Bush's primary-season rival, is pressing moderates and liberals in both the House and Senate to make sure that campaign-finance reform is the first bill the new Congress passes. How could this embarrass Bush? Because the "Reformer with Results" doesn't want to sign it. Conservatives hate it. McCain is working the issue on TV and behind the scenes; he says he already has the 60 votes he needs to get it out of the Senate. Bush allies will try to insert a so-called paycheck-protection provision into the bill, an anti-union poison pill that would strip it of needed Democratic support. But if they fail and it lands on Bush's desk, he must either sign it - detonating his right wing - or veto it, a disastrous way to introduce himself to Americans.

A thousand miles east of Washington on Dec. 14, a President who suffered through his own disastrous early days in office was crossing the Atlantic on Air Force One, musing to reporters about the challenges facing his successor. Typically, Bill Clinton radiated hope and optimism. "Maybe the last few years have bled enough poison out of the system," he said. "I think Democrats will give him a honeymoon and the opportunity to get his feet on the ground." Of course they will. It's a hopeful season.