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How Can He Govern?

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With the power of the office sapped and Congress split, will the job be worth having?

Sometimes when two children fight over a precious toy, they squabble and yowl and tug at the treasure until a grownup steps in, separates them and awards it to one or the other. And sometimes by then, the toy turns out to be broken, and the winner ends up as sad and bitter as the loser.

The presidency isn't broken, at least not yet. Bill Clinton's impeachment proved how sturdy the office still is. But as Al Gore and George W. Bush squabble and tug and await the outcome in Florida, the office of the 43rd President is being diminished. Even before the Gore campaign threatened to settle this election in court and the Bush team went after an injunction against hand-counting votes, it was obvious that the winner would face profound questions of illegitimacy and have a weak grip on presidential power--which is, after all, merely on loan from the voters.

If Bush prevails, he will be the winner by a technicality--a badly designed ballot in Palm Beach County--and, perhaps, the first President in 112 years to gain office despite losing the popular vote. All his talk about gliding into Washington on the wings of a popular mandate--"a messenger of the people," as he once said--will be forgotten. If the Florida recount swings to Gore, he will have earned whisper-thin popular and electoral victories and the undying suspicion of millions of Bush supporters--people who absorbed the inaccurate Tuesday-night news reports that Bush had won and now might conclude that Gore stole the election. And if a judge ends up deciding the outcome--something without precedent in American history--it could deliver grievous blows to both men's reputations as well as the winner's claim to the office. The result would be a President who moves into the White House more battered and bruised than the man moving out.

That's just the beginning. When the new President sets about patching himself up and forging ahead, he will face a Congress that's a perfect mirror of the country, as exquisitely divided as the electorate that couldn't choose between Bush and Gore. Depending on who wins the last pending statewide race, in Washington, the Senate could be split right down the middle: 50 Republicans, 50 Democrats. If Bush wins, Dick Cheney would become the Senate's deciding vote. If Gore wins, Joe Lieberman would resign his Senate seat and be replaced by a Republican appointee, giving the G.O.P. a tiny two-vote edge--far short of the 60 needed to shut off debate and force a floor vote. In the House, Democratic gains will leave Republicans with a nominal majority of five to 12 seats, depending on who ends up winning races like the one in New Jersey where ballots are still being counted and 178 votes separate Democrat Rush Holt and his Republican challenger, Dick Zimmer.

Whatever the final margins in the House and Senate turn out to be, lawmakers in both parties say it's time to forget about all the sweeping promises Bush and Gore made this year. Whoever emerges as President "will lack the governing authority to implement his agenda," says Senator Chuck Hagel, the independent-minded Republican from Nebraska. For Bush or Gore, the only possible path to legislative success will be right down the center aisle. "The next President should call 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans to the White House and say, 'You're gonna be my base,'" says Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democrat. "He has to make a decision--work the middle or get nothing done." In separate interviews with TIME, more than two dozen legislators from both parties insisted they are ready to work not just with the President but with one another, using such strikingly similar language that both sides seemed to be reading from the same script. "Congress is going to be forced to cooperate whether we like it or not," said Louisiana Senator John Breaux, a leader of the centrist New Democrats. "It won't be a theory. It will be a necessity." Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio said, "The message from the people was, We want less wrangling and more bipartisan work."

Sounds good. But probe the surface, and acid bubbles up. A top Democratic leadership aide on Bush: "The onus is on him to end the partisanship. He's been saying for months and months, 'I'm gonna make things better in Washington. I'm going to unify.' Fine. That's great. But he's got some proving to do." A Republican member of Congress on Gore: "He wants to fight everyone and everything." New eras of warm cooperation have a way of dissolving into cold, familiar warfare, and even good intentions and fond hopes can't always prevent it. A single shot gets fired and returned, and suddenly a sniper attack becomes a skirmish becomes a battle becomes a war. The first bullet flew on the day after the election when Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat with a gift for attacking with a mild half-smile, announced that if the chamber ended up in a 50-50 split, he would demand "power sharing"--a coalition arrangement in which the two parties would negotiate an equal sharing of power and perks.

That would mean Democratic chairmen for some committees, Democratic vice chairmen for others and an even split on committee assignments--which would strip the Republicans of their power to control committee votes and thus legislation. It would also mean a hand in deciding everything from floor procedures and staff assignments to office space. In other words, Daschle was asking majority leader Trent Lott to make him an extra set of the keys to the castle. "You don't start off by being critical of what any other leader says," Lott told TIME, "but I don't think that's going to be acceptable." Another Republican Senator is less polite. "We're going to fight like hell not to give that up," he says. "They're not going to run the place."

Daschle may be demanding so much in hopes of coming away with modest gains. He'd like to see Lott give more consideration to Democratic amendments on the Senate floor. But Daschle's power-sharing ideas also seem designed to force the G.O.P. to swat down a "bipartisan" proposal just as everyone is talking cooperation--and just as the self-styled prophet of bipartisanship, George W. Bush, might be coming to town. If Bush is elected and Democrats don't get some say in running a 50-50 Senate, Democrats warn, they will take their revenge by chaining Dick Cheney to his Senate chair. They will constantly force him to leave the White House and motor down Pennsylvania Avenue to cast tie-breaking votes on an endless river of procedural items. "He may not do a lot of funerals overseas," says Breaux.

Funerals are the least of it. Cheney, Bush's most experienced Washington hand, is already running the pretransition, a first for a vice-presidential candidate. But to understand just how pivotal his role could be--and what tying him down in the Senate could do to Bush--it helps to understand how Bush plans to govern.

PRESIDENT BUSH

For the past year, as Bush watchers tried to project how the candidate would operate as President, many asked the same question: Who will be his Bullock? Here's what they mean. In 1994, when Bush became Governor, he enlisted the aid of the state's most powerful politician, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. Crusty, profane, nearing the end of his life and as wise in the ways of Texas politics as Bush was new to the game, Bullock was a Democrat who controlled the state senate. He took the rookie under his gnarled wing, taught him well and helped steer his agenda through the legislature. The two became so close that Bullock crossed party lines to endorse Bush for re-election; on his deathbed in 1999, he asked Bush to deliver his eulogy.

By now it is obvious that Bush regards Cheney as the new Bullock. Though he's no Democrat and won't collect votes from across the aisle, the former White House chief of staff, House minority whip, Secretary of Defense and energy-industry CEO understands Washington the way Bullock understood Austin--and he would tutor the new President just as Bullock tutored the new Governor. "For George W. Bush, Cheney will be the voice of Washington," says Brent Scowcroft, a senior Bush adviser who worked with Cheney in the Ford and Bush Administrations. "He will quietly and behind the scenes help steer the Governor in the arcane ways of Washington." Some lawmakers believe Cheney would try to run the U.S. Senate much as Bullock ran the Texas one. But that's not necessary because Cheney and Lott work well together (their wives are especially close) and because Cheney would be too busy elsewhere. He would play an enormous role in the Bush Administration: in defense, trade and energy policy; in White House operations and congressional affairs, working the levers of power to help Bush get where he wants to go. Trapping Cheney in the Senate, as Democrats are threatening to do, would hamper his ability to manage the show.

Bush's reliance on Cheney doesn't mean that Bush wouldn't call the shots; he would. Bush's governing style is based on the assumption that he knows what he wants to achieve--setting goals and baseline principles--while others help him achieve it. Bush's problem, of course, is that virtually all his goals and assumptions must now be revised. "It's going to be the worst way to start a presidency," says Bill Paxon, a former G.O.P. Congressman and a key Bush adviser in Washington. "He's got the biggest hole to start in. I don't think there's any doubt that emphasis will be placed on different items in the agenda. What you're able to move and how you're able to move it will change." In other words, Bush is far more likely to pursue education reform--an issue on which he sees eye to eye with many moderate Democrats--than he is to push the $1.6 billion tax cut he talked about all year long. Instead of an across-the-board income tax cut, Bush could propose a repeal of the estate tax and relief of the marriage penalty, along with some tax cuts that are "targeted" (the horror!). Similarly, some sort of prescription-drug benefit and a patients' bill of rights seem passable--if Bush and moderate Democrats can agree on the solutions as well as the problems. This optimistic scenario would also require House minority leader Dick Gephardt to promote cooperation instead of jamming Bush every time he sends up a bill. Gephardt, who has spent the past six years happily blocking Republicans, may have a harder time enforcing party unity now. Most of the 10 newly elected House Democrats are moderate or conservative, the sort who would be tempted to work with Bush. Gephardt says he wants compromise too. But then, so does everyone right now.

Paxon and other Bush advisers remain hopeful about his chances for success. "This situation underscores the need for Bush's presidency," Paxon says. "This is a guy who will ignore all the rancor, all the sideshows, and work with people." Bush's aides ascribe almost otherworldly social graces to their man, as if his personality can cross any divide, heal any breach. Maybe that blend of naivete and confidence, underestimating the differences between Washington and Austin, overestimating the power of charm, is what a President in his situation would need. But Bush's pugnacious reaction to the election mess--claiming victory and leaking Cabinet appointments before the results have been certified, jeering at Gore's legal moves while making those of his own--didn't make him look like someone eager to embrace the opposition. If he's serious about being a different kind of Republican, he will have to do something dramatic to prove it. Inviting some Democrats in for a cup of coffee won't get it done.

"We're going to have to be legitimate participants in public policy," says California Representative Gary Condit, a leader of the Blue Dog Democrats, 30 conservatives mostly from the South and West who, along with the 65 centrist New Democrats, have the power to make or break Bush. The Governor's advisers vow he will bond with them--"every Blue Dog and New Democrat is going to get a new nickname," says Bush strategist Ed Gillespie, chuckling. But real participation, Condit says, means Bush's asking Democrats to help draft legislation "as opposed to saying, 'Here's our bill. We need some Democrats.'" And the street must run two ways. When Blue Dogs need help from Republican moderates, Condit says, he doesn't want to hear that the G.O.P. leadership won't allow it.

There's the rub. Bush's brand of bipartisanship has always meant drawing Democrats to him, not turning away from Republicans. "That's not how you unify," says Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Senator who is retiring this year. "You unify by being willing to take criticism from people in your own party. The hard part is taking the blow from the economic or social conservatives."

If Bush were to work too well with the center--creating a different centrist coalition for each modest piece of legislation he proposes--he'd face a rebellion led by majority whip Tom DeLay, the leader of the Republican right, who some believe is more powerful than House Speaker Denny Hastert. "Tom is the wild card," says a G.O.P. Congressman. "Denny is a legislator; he wants to get things done. [Majority leader] Dick Armey isn't the firebrand he used to be. But Tom still believes, and he'll torpedo Bush if he thinks he's being more compassionate than conservative." And DeLay's faction is just one of the many Bush has to please. "With three or four subsets among the Republicans, any one of them can go on strike and kill a bill," a Bush ally concedes. "It will take superhuman skill to get anything done."

But one of the wonders of the presidency is the way it taps an individual's capacity for growth and demands that ordinary men become extraordinary. Some expand to fill the job. It coul0.d happen for Bush, who is nothing if not pragmatic, adaptable and quick on his feet. "There's a certain practicality to the political world," he told TIME. "You play the hand you're dealt." But it's hard to play cards in a straitjacket.

PRESIDENT GORE

When Gore's friends and advisers imagine him squeaking into office, they pray he gets there by a recount, not a court ruling. "A judge-made President," says a former adviser. "Who wants to be that? He'd end up wishing he'd waited four years and tried again." And when they think about his transition and first weeks in office, when Gore would struggle to move beyond his grueling, mandate-free victory and find a way to work with Republicans, Gore's friends can't help thinking about lessons learned. If he could avoid the colossal mistakes Bill Clinton made when he took office, they say, Gore's presidency might have a fighting chance.

Clinton failed to reach out to the Republicans, perhaps because he knew they saw him as an interloper with no business being President. That's the way G.O.P. leaders will view Gore if he takes the election now. But Clinton gave Republicans no reason to revise their opinion, allowing a divisive social issue, gays in the military, to swamp the early weeks of his presidency and galvanize his opponents. Since Gore would have no political capital to spend, he would navigate with extreme care to avoid all ugly sideshows. And with Congress so evenly divided, he'd know he can't govern without convincing Republicans that he'll cooperate with them to get things done.

But would they cooperate with him? Gore is so familiar to Republican leaders that their contempt would be hard to contain; only the fear that voters would see them as enemies of progress might keep them from total war. "Whether Republicans cooperated with Al Gore would depend on which Al Gore showed up," says a Republican strategist with close ties to the party leadership. "Would it be the moderate New Democrat or the enviro-liberal? If it's the latter, he'd have real problems. Hell, he'd have real problems no matter what."

President Gore would face a mirror image of all the problems President Bush would have--including anger from his base if he cuts too many deals with moderates on the other side. And so the first bills Gore would send to Congress would be broad-consensus initiatives the public has been demanding. "He needs to show that this can work, so the idea is to put some points on the board early," says a Gore adviser. "Not get bogged down in big, ponderous packages." The patients' bill of rights is a prime candidate, since it failed last time by a single vote in the Senate. But on most other issues, achieving bipartisan compromise would require that Gore abandon key campaign promises. Take his plan for a prescription-drug benefit under Medicare, an issue he would probably press early. Candidate Gore called for a universal entitlement; President Gore could never get that passed. As for campaign-finance reform, money for school construction, class-size reduction, universal preschool or tax-free retirement savings accounts, Republicans would gleefully stuff them all. Would Gore even try? "Everything would have to be rethought," the adviser says.

G.O.P. leaders on the Hill viewed Gore with suspicion even before the Florida ruckus, thanks to his role as Clinton's "bad cop" during the budget battles and government shutdowns of 1995. That's why Gore now would have to find someone to play bad cop for him, so he could rise above the fray and try to enlarge the notion of his presidency in the public mind. Nominees for the bad-cop job include Lieberman and Daschle, both of whom have a way with the velvet hammer. It would give Lieberman something to do, because nobody around Gore would expect this control-freak President to give his Vice President as much responsibility as Clinton gave Gore.

There's one habit Gore would need to shake immediately: his tendency to assert that those who disagree with him are agents of darkness. The prevail-at-all-costs style his team displays in Florida, the way he described this election as a question of whether "good overcomes evil"--that kind of tone won't win votes or influence people. Even some of Gore's aides wonder if he is nimble and flexible enough to execute the two-tack governing style that divided government would require. "The best case is that the Republicans would shift back and forth between cooperation and obstruction, depending on the issue," says a Gore adviser. "There would be wins and losses. Can he put his arm around Trent Lott at a bill-signing ceremony one day, then wag his finger at him the next? Those sorts of temperament changes are not his strong suit." After the brutal business of the past week, temperament is going to be a problem for everyone.

--With reporting by James Carney/Austin, John Cloud/New York and Viveca Novak, Douglas Waller and Michael Weisskopf/Washington


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Cover Date: November 20, 2000

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