NO one can blame President Bush for doing his best to shore up Republican fortunes on the campaign trail. The perception is widespread, after all, that his concessions on taxes during agonizingly drawn-out budget negotiations damaged his party. So the dependable old lines about ``big spending liberals'' in Congress are rolled out and delivered with feeling. But give voters a little credit for having the ability to discount rhetoric. What the American people just witnessed in Washington was unsettling, even disgusting, to many. The arm-twisting and logrolling may have sometimes looked more like mud wrestling than legislating. But the dealmaking engaged all sides, and what finally emerged was the first credible deficit-reduction effort in a decade of trying.
Not only that, but Congress and the administration also managed to come up with a clean-air act that could prove a milestone in the difficult road toward purer air and water. No less than the budget battle, that took close cooperation between Republicans and Democrats, with compromise from all. Child care, housing, and immigration bills made it through the 101st Congress, too. All are improvements over current law, and all will be signed by Mr. Bush.
So the bipartisan tone struck early in the session had some staying power. Post-budget acrimony and the dash toward Nov. 6 hold the stage for now. But harsh notes on the campaign trail - whether Bush quipping that the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has become a ``House of Lords'' or majority leader Richard Gephardt charging that the president wants a ``better deal'' for rich Americans and a ``raw deal'' for everyone else - will soon fade.
The president needs the backing of Congress to bring the Gulf crisis to a conclusion that rebukes aggression while avoiding all-out war. The sliding domestic economy will provide opportunity for joint endeavors to revive economic growth - or for political potshots. Ongoing struggles like the S&L cleanup should generate bipartisan efforts to understand what happened and reduce the chances of it happening again.
Political seasons, like Halloween, can be times when masks are donned and makeup laid on heavily. After next week's elections, the president and Congress are likely to find the cast of characters relatively unchanged, and the real world no less demanding of tough compromises and teamwork.