To the Victor, the Toils

George W. Bush located his gravitas as a leader after the American tragedy of 9/11. Now, with a history-book victory for Republicans in the midterm elections of 11/5, he's discovered that his gravitas has coattails.

The president's money-raising and crowd-rousing campaign tours helped tipped the ballot balance, especially in House districts where there were too few competitive seats as a result of collusive gerrymandering by both parties after the 2000 Census.

Also Mr. Bush's high public ratings as a war-time president and his Teflon immunity to any blame for the nation's economic and Enronic ennui may have shielded many a Republican from finger- pointing TV attack ads.

As much as Bush deserves credit for the GOP now controlling Congress, he should be careful of what he wished for. To the victor belong both the spoils and toils of controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Republicans have been given only a vague mandate to rule as a result of a largely themeless election with low voter turnout (39 percent, nationally). They need to look more closely at what went wrong during the campaign and not act with untempered license.

Much has changed since a half- century ago, when the Republicans last controlled the two political branches of government. Just as the US is learning how it cannot throw its superpower weight around in a world wary of American might, so must the now-dominant party tread humbly in setting the nation's agenda rather than ramming a GOP wish list into law:

• A worrisome statistic in the election was the low turnout of black voters in the South. That may have given the GOP some surprise victories in the region, but now the president must find ways to appeal to this disenchanted, if not disenfranchised, group.

• The GOP sweep must be taken down a few notches because, like the Democrats, it raised huge amounts of money from special interests. Republican candidates won't deserve much respect in 2004 if those interests prevail on Capitol Hill. But they would win favor if they take the next step in campaign-finance reform.

• Given the bitter battle for power in Congress over the past two years, Bush largely ignored his 2000 campaign promise to set a bipartisan tone in Washington. Democrats still have tactical power with a large minority in the Senate, but the president can act more inclusively rather than divisively now, as he did in passing the education bill in 2001. If not, voters may just chose divided government again.

The campaign against terrorism and a war on Iraq may define the rest of Bush's term. But history could also record him as a great conciliator.

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