Dole and the President Get Set to Tango - or Tangle

UNLESS the polls have erred most grievously, the nomination season is, for all practical purposes, over, and the election season, unusually early, is upon us.

In the almost unprecedented situation of the incumbent leader of the Senate running against the incumbent leader of the executive branch, both must decide what advantages lie in cooperating on the nation's business for the next eight months and what advantages lie in veto confrontations.

History offers no reliable guide.

Harry Truman won reelection as a multiple-veto president, and Gerald Ford and George Bush lost.

Conventional wisdom is mainly yesterday's wisdom. What voters seemed to want in 1994 they may not want in 1996.

Supposedly burning for change, they have matched up two very familiar faces. Supposedly hating the government and all its works, they have reacted negatively to shutdowns of government and some of the more drastic features of the Republican demolition derby.

So now, leaving aside media preoccupation with the containment of Patrick Buchanan and the choice of a running mate, Senator Dole's most fateful decision will be how he interacts with President Clinton as adversary-collaborator.

Returning to the Senate and his legislative agenda, Dole has invited the president to resume negotiations on a balanced budget. "You'll get credit and I'll get credit," he said, "but the bottom line is the American people will get what they deserve."

In turn, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta has sent word that the president is still interested in signing a welfare overhaul bill if some features of the governors' compromise plan can be modified.

It is too early to say whether Dole can prevail over House militants, spoiling to pass veto-prone bills demonstrating their own ideological purity. Or whether Dole, who has sometimes accused the president of not playing straight, can establish a collaborative working relationship with him. Or whether some of the divisions on spending and taxes are simply too wide to bridge.

But for now, the nominees-apparent are circling each other, as on a dance floor, letting it be known that it takes two to tango - but also takes two to tangle.

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