America's Parliamentary Election

The 2000 presidential election, we've all heard, is "front loaded" because early primaries are likely to decide the nominations, and candidates consequently have had to accumulate money and support long in advance. But this past year, the race became front loaded in another way- many people were already bored when it had scarcely begun. Very early in the process, the conventional wisdom settled on who the nominees and even the winner would be. And with the economy growing smartly and no single issue galvanizing public opinion, the prospect that both major parties would nominate bland centrists led many people to conclude that however the political battle turned out, it wouldn't make much difference.

The 2000 election, however, could be more important- and even more entertaining- than these early impressions suggested. The economic revival of the 1990s and shift from deficit to surplus in the federal budget open a new era and invite new possibilities. But just as habits of mind in foreign affairs have been slow to change with the close of the Cold War, so we have been slow to awaken from a quarter century of the politics of austerity and diminished expectations. The next election will be critical in deciding what we do with our new possibilities.

The election comes at a time, moreover, of high political uncertainty and volatility, when public support for the two major parties is about equal and power could swing in the direction of either one. The House hangs by a sliver. As a result, 2000 has the potential to be the American equivalent of a parliamentary election- one that decides control of both the legislative and executive branches. In fact, with the Supreme Court also closely balanced between moderate and conservative factions, the victor in 2000 will likely have the opportunity to set the direction of all three branches of government.

For the Republicans, this is an opportunity of some historic moment. Since the 1960s, the Republican Party has won three big turnovers in national elections, and all have been incomplete. Nixon's election in 1968 didn't bring in a Republican Congress; even Reagan's victory failed to dislodge Democrats from control of the House; and when Gingrich's Republicans finally took over Congress in 1994, they confronted a Democratic president. The last time the Republicans held both the presidency and the Congress was the first half of Eisenhower's first term (1953- 54), an era when Republicans were reconciling themselves to the New Deal consensus and liberal justices dominated the Supreme Court, thanks in part to Eisenhower himself, who appointed Earl Warren.

In fact, the Republicans- and, more precisely, conservative Republicans- have not controlled the federal government in its entirety since Herbert Hoover left office in 1933. Now, after years of party rebuilding in the states and the Congress, the 2000 election could finally realize their quest to become the nation's dominant party and carry out a program unchecked by Democratic or liberal power in another branch. Peggy Noonan, Reagan's former speechwriter, recently wrote in Talk magazine that Republicans see a "Reagan restoration" in 2000. But this is almost to understate the significance of a victory that could simultaneously give them the presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court.

This prospect may explain why more than two-thirds of Republicans in Congress, including many conservatives, have been willing to put aside ideological tests and personal ambitions and jump on George W. Bush's bandwagon more than a year before the election. It wasn't so long ago that different factions in the Republican Party seemed ready to chew each other up in bitter party divisions. The House Republicans, in particular, epitomized the kind of harsh stridency and intransigence that were expected to obstruct a more moderate party consensus. Have they changed their beliefs? Unlikely. Rather, polls showing Bush with a double-digit lead over Al Gore and Bill Bradley have conjured up visions of a landslide in 2000 that would strengthen conservatives in Congress, regardless of how Bush positions himself in the presidential race. If a Bush victory enables Republicans to extend their majority in the House, the leadership will have far less need to compromise with moderates in their own ranks. In a landslide, their party might hit the magic number 60 in the Senate and thereby deny Democrats their last point of leverage- Senate filibusters.

Tantalized by such possibilities, conservatives on the Hill have sat still for a presidential candidate who has not only presented himself as a moderate but has even used them as a foil. After Newt Gingrich's fall and the impeachment fiasco, the Republican congressional leadership understood the need of a softer face for their party. Just as Tom DeLay had put up Dennis Hastert as speaker of the House rather than seek the position himself, so DeLay and other prominent conservatives lined up behind Bush. Even after Bush criticized the House Republicans for trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor" (unheard of, no doubt, in Texas), they didn't abandon him: "Bush has to do what he has to do to win his presidency," DeLay said. And one thing he has to do is to assure the public that the Republicans can be trusted with full control of both the presidency and Congress. In effect, Bush is saying to moderates and independents, "Trust me to keep a Republican Congress from going too far."

For a similar reason, Pat Buchanan's presence in the race as the Reform Party candidate might not be as damaging to Bush as most analysts have argued. Early polls suggested that two out of three of Buchanan's votes would come from Bush. But the Republicans' biggest problem today is the perception that their party is beholden to extremists. Buchanan would make an ideal foil for Bush in the general election, enabling Bush to claim the center, where there are far more votes to be picked up than there are to be lost on the right.

Meanwhile, conservatives like DeLay may continue to support the Texas governor because they have no fundamental disagreements with him. No less an authority than Ralph Reed says that Bush's election would be a conservative, not a moderate, triumph. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" doesn't necessarily indicate any deviation from standard conservative views of economics, environ mental regulation (oil and gas interests deserve compassion too), criminal justice, and countless other areas of national policy; it was the elder Bush who first spoke about a "kinder, gentler" America in a campaign that memorably featured Willie Horton. W's campaign reflects no less hard-headed a political calculus. The particular stances that have gained him a centrist reputation have a political logic- one that applies not just to the general election in 2000 but to the long-run future of the Republican Party. Unlike Pete Wilson in California, he has avoided a hard-line approach to immigrants and affirmative action. But in a state with a large Hispanic population, Bush may simply have responded earlier and with more foresight than other Republicans to the political reality of growing Hispanic power; besides, as Louis Dubose reports in this issue, he's been able to do so largely through symbolic gestures without committing himself to substantial expenditures or institutional change [see "El Gobernador,"].

To his credit, Bush's campaign seems to reflect a clear understanding of the historical need for Republicans to reframe their approach to the electorate. One of the reasons the Republicans recently seemed headed for trouble is that their old issues weren't working any more. That's the difficulty with Peggy Noonan's idea that the Republicans will restore Reaganism in 2000: the issues that propelled Reagan have dissipated. Uninterrupted growth in the 1990s, low inflation, low unemployment, and the end of the federal deficit have made it hard for Republicans to develop a Reaganite economic appeal. When Reagan ran against Carter, he famously asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" No Republican will ask that question in 2000. Even the tax-cut gambit hasn't worked this time. The end of the Cold War has also made it hard to rouse support on the grounds that the Democrats are "soft on communism." And with crime rates and other indicators of social pathology dropping, it will be difficult to get political traction out of the hoary charge of "moral decline."

By making "compassionate conservatism" central to his political self-definition, Bush has recognized that Republicans have to become competitive on domestic policy, including such issues as education and Social Security on which Democrats have long enjoyed an advantage. Moreover, here too the approaches advocated by Bush and other conservatives reflect a rational strategy for the long run. To cut into Democratic support and soften their own image, Republicans are now structuring vouchers to attract support from low-income constituencies and minorities; vouchers also fit into the appeal to Hispanics, many of whom would prefer Catholic schools. And as a growing percentage of Americans have money in the stock market through 401(k) plans, IRAs, and other vehicles, the constituency for creating individual investment accounts in Social Security is likely to grow.

I am not saying that the Republicans are inevitably destined to prevail on these issues. These ideas do, however, make sense as ways of expanding the Republican base in the next several decades, when as I've argued in these pages [see "An Emerging Democratic Majority," November- December 1997], demographic forces will otherwise be working against them. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post reports that Bush's adviser Karl Rove compares the potential historical significance of Bush's election in 2000 to McKinley's victory over Bryan in 1896. As McKinley's success among urban workers helped lay the foundation for an era of Republican dominance that except for Wilson lasted through the 1920s, so Bush's campaign claims to have a strategy for a long Republican era in the new century.

There might well be a self-reinforcing effect from the fulfillment of what the right regards as its unfinished business. Conservative policy would weaken the political strongholds that progressives count on. Changes in labor law making it more difficult to organize and restrictions on unions' ability to support political candidates would undermine one of the few institutional bases of support for progressives. Vouchers for mostly nonunion private schools would undercut the teachers' unions. Partial privatization of Social Security would create formidable financial interests in enlarging private accounts at the expense of Social Security benefits. Clinton has stood in the way of this agenda; Bush would not.

One consequence of the 2000 election that is certain to extend well into the new century is the effect on the Supreme Court. Republican nominees already dominate the Court; only two of the current justices were chosen by Democrats. (When President Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, she became the first Democratic appointment to the Court in 26 years; the previous one had been Thurgood Marshall.) Nonetheless, the Court has been narrowly split between moderates and conservatives in such areas as affirmative action, where some key cases have been decided by five-to-four margins. The next president, therefore, may tip the balance even with a single appointment. Furthermore, Bush, who has identified Antonin Scalia as the justice he most admires, would be able to expand the faction on the far right of the Court anchored by justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas, whose agenda in the area of federalism would radically restrict the federal government in carrying out social reform. In the future, a Scalia Court could take on the conservative causes that the elected politicians are reluctant to touch. Republicans have shown little interest in directly repealing affirmative action and abortion rights, but a Scalia Court could do the heavy lifting for them.

Americans have gotten used to deadlock in Washington. For years Congress and President Clinton have been unable to agree on fundamental choices about the direction of health policy, Social Security, education, campaign finance, and other reforms. The Supreme Court too, lacking a decisive majority, has often turned down cases that raised fundamental questions or has decided them on narrow grounds. It is as if the scales of government were so delicately balanced that they failed to tip one way or the other. But sooner or later, the balance will tip, the deadlock will be broken, and fateful choices will be made. And if out of a kind of diffuse unhappiness with bland leadership the Democrats are unable to mobilize themselves, they will find the Republicans after the 2000 election in full possession of the power to shape our government and our future.

Yet the Democrats also have an opportunity in 2000, although the situation is not quite symmetrical with that of the Republicans. A Democratic victory in the race for president might help carry the House but would be less likely to win back the Senate; even if it did, it would not generate a majority sufficient to push through a strong progressive program. America's new fiscal climate, however, is more favorable to liberal initiatives, and a recovery of Democratic self-confidence is under way. Many of the social issues that haunted Democrats have lost their resonance. The Democrats' opportunity is to build on the gains of the Clinton years and the fiscal and political possibilities those gains have opened up.

One of the mistaken perceptions left to us from the New Deal is that progressives need hard times to win support for reform. But as the historian Richard Hoftstadter observed 44 years ago, the New Deal was actually the exception in American history; earlier reform administrations, from Jefferson's to Teddy Roosevelt's, got started in times of prosperity. The public's recent lack of enthusiasm for a tax cut may be symptomatic of a deeper change; voters who are doing well materially may spurn politicians who are so evidently trying to bribe them and choose instead a leadership that calls them to public purposes. We shouldn't kid ourselves about any sudden reversal in public sentiment, but in times of comfort, more Americans may be willing to vote their higher aspirations than in times of trouble.

That premise, at least, seems to underlie the turn the Democratic candidates have taken. Quite unexpectedly, as Ronald Brownstein writes in this issue [see "More Liberal Than You Thought,"], Gore and Bradley have both proposed substantial new social initiatives. Both have returned to the subject of health care and are advocating measures that could reduce the ranks of the uninsured. To be sure, they're competing for the Democratic base, but even after the primary season is over, the winner will need to distinguish himself from the Republican candidate and give voters a reason to show up at the polls. At a time when the leading Republican is talking compassion, the Democrats can scarcely avoid talking about the problems that beset poor and working families. In effect, Bush has extended an invitation to hold a national conversation about what to do for those Americans who have been left behind in the nation's recovery. It's an invitation Democrats should be delighted to accept.

Bradley's health proposal illustrates how changed fiscal conditions are influencing the Democratic debate. The proposal carries a total price tag of $65 billion a year, about half of which would go into new subsidies to low- and moderate-income people for the purchase of health insurance. The plan doesn't purport to make coverage universal, but Bradley's advisers estimate (on the basis of very rough calculations) that it would raise coverage to about 95 percent of Americans, up from 83.4 percent in 1998. In some ways, his approach resembles the more conservative proposals of the early 1990s: it doesn't mandate any employer contribution, and it relies entirely on competition to control costs (as a mechanism for people to buy coverage, he'd open up the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan, which is a managed competition system). But it's also the kind of big redistributive program that no one would have proposed six years ago because of the deficit. Bradley's source of revenue is the projected federal surplus- indeed, his proposal commits about two-thirds of the surplus available, and as a result he isn't likely to have anything else to propose nearly as big. In effect, he has staked his candidacy on health care even more than Bill Clinton did in 1992.

The peculiarity about the 2000 Democratic race is that Gore and Bradley do not represent different wings of the party. As senators, they had similar voting records, and although Bradley has taken more aggressive reform positions on campaign finance, gun control, and gay rights as well as health care, he is a late bloomer as a crusader. There is little in his record in 18 years in the Senate to make liberals prefer him to Gore- as there is little in the seven years of the Clinton administration to make liberals prefer Gore to him. The contest is mostly about their individual qualities. Nearly everyone has taken to mocking them both as wooden speakers. Perhaps, however, they can do together what neither could do alone- make the Democratic campaign worthy of public attention. More people are likely to listen to the two of them debate than would have tuned in to hear a monologue by either one. And if Warren Beatty enters the Democratic race, the debates might actually be prime-time TV attractions- though for sheer entertainment value, they're still unlikely to beat the circus that Jesse Ventura, Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot are staging in the Reform Party.

Divided government has been with us for so long that it's hard to imagine what American politics might be like without it. If Bush seems certain to win the presidency, will the public then vote for a Democratic Congress to keep him in check? It seems unlikely enough voters will think in general strategic terms when they cast their votes for their individual representative. Besides, why should they vote to check Bush if they are persuaded he would check a Republican Congress? The more people feel safe with him, the less alarmed they may be about voting Republican for both president and Congress. The danger the Democrats face is that even a lot of their own voters may go sleepwalking through the election, not believing that much is at stake. If the Democrats are going to avoid unchecked Republican government, they need to wake people up to the significance of that choice. They're going to have to make a stronger case than they have so far for the progressive use of America's new opportunities.



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