Ready for presidential dodge ball

Before Al Gore and George W. Bush had finished their speeches last Wednesday night, the spinning here had begun. Fast and furious, like an old album spinning at 78 r.p.m., the chatter has been flying by, questioning who the real winners and losers were in this campaign.

This is not exactly a new development. Post-election wrap-up spin is as much a part of Washington blabbery as the weekly who's up and who's down round-table talk. But this year's crop of opinion-shaping carries some additional weight, because this year, after an endless and hopelessly murky campaign, there are some legitimate and complicated issues that go beyond leadership style and cabinet appointments.

How often, for instance, do you hear that the guy who lost the race is actually better off than he would be if he'd won it? Since when does the party running Congress have to yield on their agenda because their candidate will soon be stepping into the Oval Office?

Did Campaign 2000 confuse you? Well, get ready for governing in 2001 - Washington meets Bizarro World, where contradiction and uncertainty will reign.

Right now, it's even unclear who George W.'s biggest opponent will be: the Democrats who will desperately want to make Mr. Bush look foolish so they can recapture Congress, or the Republicans who will try to use this moment to push through all their ideas at the expense of Bush's centrist image.

Whatever anyone tells you about how this city will operate in the next four years is as reliable as a used Yugo. Only time will tell. At the moment there is only one bit of spin you should immediately write off as false.

Al Gore did not win by losing. No matter how you slice it - coming recession, increasing congressional acrimony, the Redskins' struggles - the man would be happier presiding over Washington than sitting back in Tennessee. This was probably Mr. Gore's best chance to win the White House, and whatever you hear now about his return in 2004, remember that four years is a long time. Who knows where he will be in the public's mind and in his life when the next presidential race rolls around?

But as clear as it is that Gore is a loser in this contest, it is not clear who the winners are.

Consider George W. Bush. Some are arguing that the difficult, divided environment Bush has inherited will only serve to help him. As he did in the presidential debates, Bush will benefit from lowered expectations. Furthermore, the current situation plays to all his strengths. He has dealt with "hostile" conditions in Texas and emerged stronger than when he went in. He knows how to work well with others.

There is a certain logic to this, except for two rather major points. First, lowered expectations are fine for a few debates, but they will not hold up for four years of governing.

Second, and more important, Washington is not Austin, and the partisan sniping there can't compare to the 24-hour news-talk argument culture of this city. Playing well with others only works when someone is interested in playing along. And it is starting to look like George W. has walked directly into the middle of a dodge-ball game with both sides looking to score points.

Could congressional Democrats be the winners of the 2000 election?

Well, that's certainly the word on Capitol Hill, at least among hopeful Democrats, who are already talking as if they are certain to retake the House and Senate in 2002. But again, going into 2001, nothing is certain. In this campaign Bush showed he knows how to reach people; and if the Democrats play pure obstructionist, they may find themselves with no gains in two years - or even losses.

So who, if anyone, is the winner of this two-year, multibillion-dollar exercise in democracy and bad television? Well, considering the road ahead, when all the post-election spinning is over, it may be that the real winner of the 2000 election is someone whose name has been left out of the winner-loser chatter.

The real winner in the 2000 election will likely be someone who knows how to navigate between Bush and the Congress. Someone who understands that he or she can't simply stand with one side, but is willing to jump from group to group depending on the issue and make "principled" stands. Someone who is inside the Beltway and inside the institutions, in prime position to take advantage of a rancorous Washington and make himself or herself the "voice of reason."

Hmmm, why are John McCain and Joe Lieberman smiling?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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