Ballot Box

Bipartisans at the Gates

Bipartisanship is less than an hour old, and I’m already sick of it.

Bush used the word three times in his speech, not counting his comment that the country needs to move “beyond partisanship.” The other buzzwords were “together” (a word he used 12 times), “consensus” (three times) “cooperation” (twice), “shared” (twice), and “common goals” and “common ground” (once each).

I don’t think anyone wearing a head could miss the essential point, which Bush underscored by speaking from the chamber of the Democratic-controlled Texas State House, where Pete Laney, the Democratic speaker, introduced him. The president-elect wants to work together with Democrats, just the same way he did in Texas.

Bush said this so emphatically that I don’t think he has any other option at least for the time being. But I don’t think all the bipartisan blather is merely posturing on his part. He really means it. To my ears, Bush sounded far more genuine in what he was saying tonight than Gore did–though Bush created a much less emotionally charged spectacle. Like his father, Dubya is a man largely unhindered by conservative ideology or fixed political principle. He won’t find it hard to meet the Democrats halfway, if that is where he concludes that political advantage lies, because doing so won’t violate anything he deeply believes. And he’s quite attached to the idea of himself as someone who can forge agreement across party lines.

So based on his speech tonight, I’d guess that Bush probably will get on well with congressional Democrats and succeed in making deals with them on some big issues. For one thing, I think he’ll make a genuine effort and that Democrats will find him likable and easy to deal with. But perhaps more importantly, there’s too much political hazard for Democrats in spurning Bush’s proffered hand. Unlike past GOP leaders Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and Trent Lott, Bush won’t play the arch-conservative heavy. He’s going to be reasonable, and Democrats will risk looking like obstructionists themselves if they don’t meet him halfway, at least some of the time.

But I think Bush’s speech may also have offered a glimpse of the big political problem he’ll eventually face. Unlike in Texas, Bush can’t win cooperation from Democrats in Washington on essentially conservative terms. If he wants to strike important deals with the other party, it will be at the expense, at least to some extent, of the true believers in his own party. Republicans, who now control all three branches of government (as we learned last night), expect something more out of power than a big increase in Medicare spending. And as another President Bush found, the GOP’s conservative base can be brutally unforgiving of sellouts, also known as Republican presidents who hear the siren call of bipartisanship and compromise.

That’s why I think that for Bush to be a successful bipartisan president, he won’t just have to woo the Democrats. He’ll have to crush the conservatives. Tonight we had a preview of our new president’s power to charm. If he’s going to thrive in Washington over the next four years, his other shoe had better have an iron heel.

Photograph of George W. Bush on the Slate Table of Contents by Rick Wilking/Reuters.