The Uses of Transitions

THESE weeks between the election and the swearing in of the 104th Congress may be time for a few words in praise of the slowness of the political system. It is a good thing to have this time for the nation, and the new Congress, to think through the election results.

Yes, the newly energized Republicans are eager to get in there and start in on their agenda, but the question must be asked: which agenda? There have been three or four already, and we haven't even got our Christmas cards out yet.

The Contract With America has been presented as the Republicans' official agenda, but then it turns out that support for that is not uniform among Republicans. Which items in the contract will come to the fore; which will be left to fade quietly away? From the discussion on school prayer, it emerged that even Ralph Reed, head of the Christian Coalition, had higher priorities on his list.

The Republicans have, commendably, done a fair bit of preparation for their takeover of both houses of Congress.

But they still give the impression of trying some ideas on for size, trying to see how some of them will play - naturally so. The slowness and cumbersomeness of the American system forces political leadership teams to choose their battles carefully. The Republicans are now numerous enough in Congress to divide into wings. To retain control there beyond a two-year term, the Republicans will want to settle on a short list of issues on which they can present an effectively unified front.

A distinction is to be made here between a partisan, who singlemindedly keeps pushing in one direction, and a true leader, who synthesizes opposing forces, who takes responsibility for the whole, who takes into account the interests and arguments of the opposition. This isn't a matter of right or left, although a Republican synthesis is likely to be more conservative than a Democratic one.

The fireworks surrounding the Gingrich ascendancy have to do with a partisan having to learn how to become a true leader.

If during this period enough rhetorical hot air gets blown out of the system to let the Republicans develop their short list and show that they can master the synthesizing function of leadership, this will show a transition put to good use.

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