With Friends Like These...

George W. Bush and his advisers, stumbling toward the presidency in the aftermath of a bloody election, believe that early compromise and conciliation (or at least the appearance thereof) are crucial if the administration is to attain any kind of political legitimacy or success. But extremists in Bush's own party have other ideas: Despite the infinitesimally small margin and dubious means by which Bush won the electoral vote--and despite his having lost the popular vote--Republican factions in both the House and the Senate want to use their own razor-thin majorities to govern as though they won the election with a decisive mandate. And precisely because Bush has been so weakened by events, it's the extremists in the party who are calling the shots. That's bad news for a Bush presidency.

Nowhere has this fissure in the Republican ranks been clearer than in the now evenly divided Senate. Ever since Maria Cantwell finally defeated Slade Gorton in Washington State to become the Democrats' 50th senator, Democrats and quite a few Senate Republicans have been wondering aloud when Mississippi Senator Trent Lott will realize he had his head handed to him on November 7. Having lost four GOP seats in the Senate (and the Republican incumbents who didn't win on November 7 were mostly close Lott allies) and much of his credibility in the election (the 2000 campaign repudiated Lott's brand of steadfast opposition to increasingly popular legislation like campaign finance reform and a patients' bill of rights), Lott will be the first Senate majority leader in history to need help from the executive branch--in the form of Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking Senate vote--to retain his position.

And yet Lott and his lieutenants appear more inclined than ever to exploit the levers of his nominal majority. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle has demanded an even distribution of resources and committee assignments in recognition of the split. But Lott and his chief deputy Don Nickles have flatly refused any such thought of sharing power.

But not all Senate Republicans feel that way--not even all the chairmen, who have the most to lose in a power-sharing arrangement. When Republican committee chairmen met in the first week of December, at least three of them--John McCain (Commerce Committee), Ted Stevens (Appropriations Committee), and Fred Thompson (Government Affairs Committee)--actually favored splitting seating assignments as Daschle proposed. All three (along with Richard Lugar of the Agriculture Committee, who also seems open to power sharing) are temperamentally inclined to run their committees through consensus rather than strictly along party-line votes. (And the McCainites in the Senate are increasingly contemptuous of Lott and his supporters who control the leadership.) But there is another reason these chairmen and many Senate Republicans are open to the Daschle gambit: They realize they could soon be in the minority themselves, and they don't want to set any unfortunate precedents.

In the House of Representatives, Republicans retained their majority largely thanks to midwestern and northeastern moderates who won elections by extremely close margins. That fact has emboldened a disparate coalition of Republicans who want to move ahead on issues like campaign finance reform and at least moderately progressive health care reforms like the patients' bill of rights supported by most Democrats. Some of these folks are McCainites or moderates who have been casting about for such a path since the mid-1990s. Others, like National Republican Congressional Campaign Chairman Tom Davis, are pragmatists who realize that this is the only way to preserve Republicans' viability outside the South and the mountain states.

But as in the Senate, the extremists are rushing forward to seize the agenda. Ever since November 7, a number of House conservatives have been pressing an anti-accommodationist line that recalls the Republican revolutionaries of 1995. Tom DeLay stunned the Capitol in early December by publicly threatening President Bill Clinton with a government shutdown if he didn't concede to a series of spending reductions favored by House Republicans. Later, DeLay told The Washington Post, "You're going to think I'm crazy, but I didn't see this as a tie election. This is something I've been working for for 22 years. I mean, we got it. The Republicans are the majority party in this country." California Republican John Doolittle, DeLay's key ally, told the Post, "The power of the presidency, coupled with a Republican Congress and conservative control of the Supreme Court, is nothing short of awesome. This is the implementation of the rest of the 'Contract With America.'"

Given the hothouse partisan atmosphere that descended on Washington during Florida's on-again, off-again recount, there is little doubt that many House right-wingers would enjoy the chance to square off with Bill Clinton one more time. But it's difficult to conceive of anything being more damaging or unwelcome for the incoming Bush administration than to have his allies in Congress rekindle the partisan acrimony of 1995 just as he is preparing to be inaugurated. The Bush camp realizes that compromise, at least of a sort, must be the order of the day--especially if they're to have any hope of achieving a working relationship with the Democrats or of winning the trust of liberals. It's the best way for Bush to peel off enough wavering Democrats to give himself a center-right governing majority.

Given the damage it could do to their new and highly tenuous hold on the executive branch, why are many congressional Republicans unable to resist the temptation to exploit what they believe is their unimpeded control over the national government? Partly, the answer is simple denial--especially by Lott. But some right-wing Republicans see the same political reality the moderates do: They just react to it differently. All Republicans in Congress recognize that their power may be ebbing and that their hold on all three branches of government may be very short-lived. But while the firebrands decide they must make the most of their momentary dominance of the federal government (something Republicans have not experienced in more than two generations), moderates perceive that compromise (especially on taxes, prescription drugs, and HMO reform, where McCain and his supporters are closer to Gore than Bush anyway) is a necessity if they are to get anything done--and if they are to avoid getting creamed in the midterm elections. "The only way we as a party can hope to gain in 2002," one McCain ally recently told me, "is by doing the people's business. There's not any significant issue that [the Republican leadership] can cram down the Congress on a straight party-line vote."

In truth, Tom DeLay's agenda was never Bush's agenda no matter how much liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans tried to imagine it was. And, in fact, neither of the Republican factions has a clear identity of interest with Bush. But the renewed militancy among the DeLay group in the House is a direct result of Bush's weakness. A President Bush hobbled by nagging questions about his legitimacy seems less like a champion who can restore the party's fortune--or remake the party in his own moderate image--and more like a puppet who can be manipulated into signing off on hard-core conservative, Contract with America-type legislation. The danger is not so much that DeLay Republicans will accomplish a great deal of their extremist agenda; rather, it's that they will prevent Bush from governing effectively from the center or center-right. (Thus DeLay, in effect, can serve the same useful purpose to liberals that Newt Gingrich once did--pulling his party so far off center it loses mainstream appeal.)

The irony, of course, is that Bush's attraction for many mainstream Republicans was supposed to be his ability to discipline the unruly and cantankerous elements within his own party. By appearing before the public as a moderate, as a "uniter, not a divider," he was going to win over the swing voters and thereby tame the right wing of the GOP; he was supposed to deliver the tax cuts and go-slow government that establishment Republicans craved without all the red meat that scared off folks in the suburbs and crippled the party outside its bastions in the South. That was the plan, anyway. And if Bush had defeated Gore by a substantial margin, it might well have worked. A strong president can dominate his party and keep the extremists in line. But W.'s postelection feebleness has changed the calculus. Rather than the broad mandate and interparty cooperation that a real victory would have secured for Bush, all he has to fall back on is the slavering right flank of the party. So it seems that the unruly and cantankerous elements will discipline Bush in the months to come, and not the other way round. ยค