The bitter news election is over, and every politician in the United States is making overtures to the other side in an orgy of conciliatory blather. They're using nice words that the American public needs and wants to hear. But all this kissy-kissy talk is sheer baloney.
Americans patiently waited out the five wild weeks of trying to sort out who won this most unusual election because, as a whole, the American public is not especially partisan. It was the political establishment -- career politicians, party activists and the staffs of partisan think tanks and Washington-based interest groups -- that went ballistic. They're still angry.
In a larger sense, the episode marked another escalation of a bitter civil war whose beginnings can be traced to 1987, when Ronald Reagan's nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate after an extensive media campaign by his opponents. The same war engulfed the Clinton administration, temporarily closing the government and featuring Kenneth Starr's GOP-backed jeremiad against the president and his wife, culminating in Clinton's impeachment.
George W. Bush might sincerely want to "reach out" to congressional Democrats, but the Democrats don't want to reach back. They have a fighting chance of regaining control of one or both houses of Congress in the elections of 2002, in which every seat in the House of Representatives and at least a third of the Senate will be up for grabs. That election occurs about 21 months after Inauguration Day, which means that every bill Congress considers and every issue that claims the national stage will be campaign fodder.
Expect no better from the Republicans. Despite Bush's sugary "compassionate conservative" rhetoric, the Grand Old Party is dominated by a virulent right wing that thinks it is finally entitled to have its own way. Republicans haven't had even nominal control of Congress and the presidency (and, some would say, the Supreme Court) for half a century. The intervening years have spawned a generation of uncompromising ideologues such as House Whip Tom DeLay and Majority Leader Dick Armey, both Texans. When it comes to helping the poor, they're social Darwinists, but they're government activists when it comes to personal decisions about abortion or sexual preference. On foreign policy, they're confirmed isolationists who want to spend billions building a highly dubious missile defense shield over the nation. They're eager to do battle on all fronts.
According to opinion polls, Bush's signature $1.3-trillion tax cut was never popular, and the Republican speaker of the House has said it's too much to hope for.
The rest of Bush's platform didn't even register on the public's consciousness. Only about half of the eligible voters bothered going to the polls (a tiny fraction higher than in 1996), and the people who did vote were motivated more by their dislike of the candidate they voted against than by enthusiasm for the one they voted for.
So what is the president-elect to do? Keep public expectations low, and pray that the economy stays reasonably strong. Come to think of it, he might do better to pray to Alan Greenspan. Wisely, Bush's first overture last week was to the head of the Federal Reserve. But the love-in with Greenspan didn't work. The very next day, the Fed refused to lower short-term interest rates.
If the Fed keeps interest rates up when it meets in January, there's a better-than-even chance that the country will plunge into a recession by late 2001. That means a Democratic takeover of Congress in 2002 and a one-term presidency for Bush.
While a good economy cannot guarantee that the party in power remains in power (as evidenced by the election just passed), a bad economy guarantees that voters will kick it out. That's why the Democrats, now eager to make a come-back, will be watching Greenspan's every move with morbid fascination.
(Reich is the former secretary of Labor.)
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