Although they get little respect from political analysts, the forces of irony have been hard at work in the new Congress. They showed their subversive influence when the House Republican leadership chose Representative Thomas Bliley of Virginia to chair the committee in charge of health legislation. Bliley, a long-time advocate of tobacco interests, is an undertaker by profession.
Will a conservative or liberal agenda be at the center of national politics during the next four years? No matter how centrist George W. Bush and Al Gore sound, that is what the fall election is still fundamentally about. Conservatives seem to understand the choice and have lined up behind Bush. Many liberals don't and are withholding their support from Gore. If that ambivalence persists--according to polls through July, Gore draws less support from Democrats than Bush does from Republicans--it could signal low turnout, defections to Nader, and disaster for the Democrats in November, with enormous consequences for the future.
It was just about 100 years ago, after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, that the original, agrarian Populist movement collapsed and gave way to the more broadly based Progressivism of the early 1900s that permanently altered American government and society. But Populism, despite its short and checkered history, survives in our political vocabulary, and there are a fair number of people who brighten up at the thought of a populist revival. I am, however, not among them.
If, as seems likely but by no means certain, George W. Bush takes office as the next president, while the Republicans hold a one-vote margin in the Senate and control the House of Representatives by about four seats, this will be the strangest victory of any political party in our nation's history. The Republicans will have won control of federal power while losing the popular vote for the presidency, seats in both chambers of Congress, and eight of 11 races for governor. Exit polls indicate no enthusiasm for the tax cut that was Bush's priority in the campaign.
Political parties rarely make deep changes in their societies by winning a single election. Once in power they generally need to reinforce their support, repeat their triumphs at the polls, and so change the terms of politics that even their opponents adjust their positions. That is what Margaret Thatcher did, and Tony Blair may be in a comparable position now that he has won a second landslide victory. The prospects for George W. Bush are, thankfully, much less certain. If the first phase of his presidency is any indication, he may be Thatcher-like in his ideological convictions but not in his long-term impact on politics.