How Can He Govern?
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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