What Now?

Alan Brinkley is Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University and the author most recently of Liberalism and Its Discontents (click here to buy it). Michael McConnell is the Presidential Professor of Law at the University of Utah. Slate asked them to keep a running commentary on the presidential endgame.  

Dear Michael,

Now that the bitter battle of the last 36 days is finally over, the nation seems to be moving instinctively into the mood of optimistic reconciliation that usually occurs just after Election Night. Both Gore and Bush, in their measured and conciliatory speeches last night, contributed to the creation of that mood; the press and, to the degree we can measure it, the public seem to be following in their wake. Gore’s speech was strikingly magnanimous under the circumstances, and it was delivered with the kind of personal warmth and sincerity that so many found lacking in him throughout the campaign. Bush’s speech was somewhat more pedestrian—he still has a kind of stiff, mechanical quality giving prepared speeches—but it avoided triumphalism and stressed the need for compromise and bipartisanship, exactly what he needed to do. So the stage is set for a period of healing and cooperation.

Or is it? The return to post-Election-Night convention cannot hide the fact that something extraordinary has happened. A man has become president-elect with a large portion of the public convinced that he has not been truly elected. He has done so by fighting strenuously and effectively to prevent untabulated votes from being counted and faces the possibility that they will now be examined by the press and will perhaps show him actually to have lost. And he has won the presidency in part by virtue of an explosively controversial decision by a bitterly divided Supreme Court. Bush made no reference to the unusual circumstances of his election last night, but the subdued and conciliatory tone of his speech was evidence that this is no ordinary coronation. Whether the current wave of good feeling becomes the basis for a genuine period of political reconciliation, or whether it is simply a series of predictable platitudes soon to be swept away in partisan rancor, depends on the behavior of three actors: Bush himself, the Democratic Party (and its congressional delegation in particular), and the Republican Party.

I do not question Bush’s sincerity in wanting to govern in a bipartisan way and, implicitly, in wanting to avoid the divisive elements of his own, and his party’s, agenda. That is, we are constantly told, how he governed in Texas. And it is the only approach to his presidency that could allow him to achieve anything. He did his part last night in establishing the right tone for his administration, and he will have to continue to hew to that conciliatory tone in his actions over the coming months. He has to be very careful about whom he appoints to important offices. Many people are calling on him to choose Democrats for his Cabinet, but what is more important is that he avoid appointing Republicans who will raise red flags among Democrats in Congress. When and if the time comes, he will have to be especially careful about Supreme Court appointments and, for that matter, all federal court appointments. There is great resentment among Democrats not just about the way the court behaved this week, but about the way the Republicans in Congress bottled up so many of Clinton’s court appointments over the last six years so as to save plenty of seats for a Republican president to fill. Congressional Democrats will, I suspect, be extremely vigilant on judicial nominations.

Bush will also have to find a legislative agenda that will avoid some of the more divisive elements of his campaign platform. He will need to scale down his tax cut, abandon (or at least postpone) Social Security privatization, and for the moment at least forget about school vouchers. If he truly wanted to establish himself as a bold and conciliatory leader, he would embrace campaign-finance reform early in his administration (not just the uncontroversial reform of election procedures that will certainly be considered next year), perhaps by endorsing McCain-Feingold.

Can he do such things? I don’t sense that Bush himself is a particularly ideological man, and if it were up to him alone I suspect he would move very comfortably to the center and would work very hard to conciliate Democrats and restrain the more militant elements of his own party. (I don’t think he will ever support campaign-finance reform, but I see few other issues about which he appears to have such strong feelings.) But will the Democrats let him? If the Democrats in Congress approach this presidency the way the Republicans in Congress approached the Clinton presidency—determined almost from the start to weaken and delegitimize it—then Bush will have a very difficult time. There are, of course, some Democrats—in and out of Congress—whose bitterness about this election is so profound that they will never reconcile themselves to Bush as president. But the Democratic congressional leadership consists of reasonable men who, not insignificantly, may harbor presidential ambitions of their own. It is in their interest to appear cooperative and statesmanlike, for a while anyway. If Bush is careful not to push any issues or appointments that are hot buttons for the Democrats, he can probably deal reasonably effectively with the opposing party at least for a year or so—which would be enough time, if all goes well, for him to heal some of the present bitterness and establish himself as a credible president.

It’s the Republicans who will likely be the greater obstacle to a successful Bush presidency. Almost lost in the controversy over the presidential election is a remarkable fact about this political moment: For the first time in 48 years, the Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. Their control of all those things is precarious to be sure. They control the Senate only by virtue of a Republican vice president. They control the House by a tiny handful of seats. They control the White House by virtue of … well, we all know that story. But the fact remains that they control them all—something many Republicans have been anticipating for two generations—and we already can hear among some of their leaders on the Hill a hint of the exultation they feel.

In 1953-54, when Republicans last controlled the presidency and the Congress (for those two years only), their party was very different from what it is today. Perhaps the most appropriate symbol of that change is the Bush family itself. Prescott Bush, the president-elect’s grandfather, was a senator from Connecticut then. And he was one of a very large element of the Republican Party closely tied to Establishment institutions, moderate in their politics, comfortable cooperating with Democrats and even with most liberals, and hostile to the extremes on both the right and the left. Prescott Bush (as Bill Clinton reminded his son in 1992) was one of many moderate Republicans who opposed Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s.

The first President Bush was in many ways like his father. He had grown up in New England and absorbed the ethic of service and self-restraint that governed not only his family, but the patrician class from which they came. He spent much of his adult life in Texas (and lives there still) but was never fully a Texan—and never a very successful politician there. His one attempt at statewide office, a run for the Senate, failed. He was always more comfortable in appointive positions—CIA director, U.N. ambassador, vice president—where his instincts toward conciliation, compromise, and being a team player were rewarded. His presidency was an effort to re-create the centrism of the Eisenhower years and at least some part of the Nixon years, to remove the hard edges of the Reagan years. He was helped in that effort by the fact of a Democratic Congress, and he achieved some success in it. But his concern (or, as it sometimes seemed, fear) of his own party’s right sharply circumscribed his ability to govern from the center; and his administration sometimes had a kind of schizophrenic quality—one side soothing and conciliatory, the other harsh and even demagogic. He was torn between the party of his father and the party of his son.

President-elect Bush will now be the third generation of his family to serve in the federal government. But the legacy of his grandfather’s party is not what has shaped his career. The new president, like his party, is no longer a man of the Northeastern establishment; he is fully a man of the South. Unlike his father, he is a popular politician in Texas and, for now at least, beloved by the right. He seems much more comfortable than his father ever did with the party faithful, with the rituals of campaigning, with fund raising and schmoozing. Like his father and grandfather, he is much less ideological than most of the other important Republicans of Texas and the South; but when required, he hits the notes of the Republican right in perfect pitch. As governor of Texas, he managed to work effectively with Democrats in the legislature. But it would a mistake to read too much into this. The Democrats in the Texas Legislature are, on the whole, much more conservative than national Democrats are; and their disagreements with Bush and the Republicans are generally rather mild. It will be very different in Washington.

For Bush to govern as he says he wishes to—in a conciliatory, bipartisan way—he will need help not only from Democrats (who have the capacity to block almost anything he tries to do if they wish to) but also from Republicans. But where in the Republican Party today will he find conciliatory, bipartisan allies? Many Republican governors have flourished, as Bush has flourished, by muting partisanship and cooperating broadly with the opposition in their states. But in the Republican Congress, it is hard to think of a bipartisan moment in the last six years. The Prescott Bush, moderate wing of the party is now all but dead; Democrats control almost all the Senate seats, and most of the House seats, in all the areas from which moderate Republicans used to come: New England, New York, the West Coast. The pattern of the electoral vote in this presidential election confirms how dramatically the political landscape has changed. Gore won the entire Northeast except New Hampshire. He won the entire West Coast. He won the whole industrial Midwest except Ohio and Indiana. Bush won the entire South; the entire West except for the coast; and all the Border States except Maryland—regions in which moderate Republicanism is virtually dead. This geographical polarization has been developing for years, but never before has it been so starkly visible.

There are a few traces of the old moderate wing still in Congress: Arlen Specter, Jim Jeffords, Gordon Smith; and a slightly larger number in the House. But the center of gravity in the party has moved decisively to the right and decisively to the South and the West. Virtually every person in an important leadership position in either house is a conservative Southerner, in many cases a very ideologically conservative Southerner, whose political instincts were honed during their many years in the minority and who seem drawn much more to confrontation than conciliation. Can Bush rein in Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, Phil Gramm, Jesse Helms, and the rest? Can he persuade them that this moment of Republican dominance—the first in half a century—has to be postponed, that destructive battles with Democrats have to be avoided, so as to consolidate his leadership? The last president elected by so narrow a margin with his own party in control of Congress—John Kennedy—had great difficulty persuading Democrats in the House and Senate to support him on anything. They knew he had won by an eyelash. They owed him very little. They were, in many cases, much more conservative than he was (because there were still many Southern Democrats in Congress). Kennedy had few successes with Congress during his brief presidency; only his death broke the logjam. So one has to wonder where Bush (who enters office in a far weaker position than Kennedy did) will find the votes—in Congress, and in the Republican electorate as a whole—to support the moderate bipartisan initiatives he claims to want to pursue.

The Democrats may play along for a while. But the first time there is a controversial appointment, the first time there is a legislative initiative on one of the issues they fervently oppose (abortion, school vouchers, Social Security privatization, conservative judges, and many others), it will be very hard, I think, for them to resist being just as obstructive as the Republicans were through most of the Clinton years. And it is difficult to imagine that Bush could restrain his party from pushing such things even if he wanted to.

Like everyone else, I am relieved that this terrible battle is finally over—even if appalled at the way it was resolved and, like most Democrats, disappointed by the result. I would like to think that we can now find a way to transcend the ideological divisions and the personal animosities that have driven Washington politics in recent years. If Bush could, indeed, draw his party back into the center, he would doing both the Republicans and the nation a real service. But I am not optimistic. Much more likely, I think, is a brief foray into conciliatory politics that breaks down very quickly and produces the mirror image of the harsh political battles that dominated American public life in the 1980s and 1990s. The bitter contest over the 2000 election may, as many hope, be a last gasp of what Bush likes to call “partisan squabbling.” But it is at least equally possible that it is a prelude to the political era to come.

This “Dialogue,” which ends today, began almost exactly a month ago—which now seems, at least politically, a lifetime ago. It’s been a great pleasure, Michael, discussing this extraordinary moment with you and benefiting from your thoughtful and intelligent commentary, with which I sometimes disagreed but which I always respected. My thanks to the editors of Slate for giving us so much time and space to think about this remarkable moment in our history as it transpired.