Will wide division call for extreme steps?

The president-elect could take bipartisanship to a bold new level, but may opt for smaller efforts.

If George W. Bush or Al Gore - whoever becomes president-elect - really wants to act boldly in trying to unify the nation after this season of partisanship, he could do some downright dramatic things:

* He could appoint five or six opposite-party members to his Cabinet.

* He could strike a deal with the other party's congressional leaders to pass their favorite bills.

* He could even put his opponent - the loser of the election - in the Cabinet, a move not so unusual in places like Israel, where "national unity" governments are more common.

These things are certainly possible. Yet history hints that American efforts at mending partisan splits usually come in smaller steps. President Jimmy Carter, for instance, praised outgoing President Gerald Ford in his inaugural address for helping to heal the nation after Watergate. President-elect Ronald Reagan invited House Speaker Tip O'Neill to a post-election party - kicking off a productive friendship.

Whatever steps this year's president-elect takes, big or small, they'll go a long way toward defining the tone of new-millennium Washington - and whether he'll have any shot at being a productive chief executive.

"He will need to do something that pushes the envelope on national unity," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Fortunately, "It doesn't take much in our country to be a unifier: The right smile, a handshake, and a few kind words go a long way."

Or as former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson puts it: "In politics, you bruise easy and heal quick."

Mr. Simpson is among the optimists who say this year's split-down-the-middle election signifies an utterly centrist - rather than divided - electorate. This presents a grand opportunity, he says, for rapid mending of a capital hobbled by extreme partisanship.

If the president-elect wants to grab this opportunity, one possible quick-fix - although it hasn't been done since the days of President Dwight Eisenhower - is for him to set up regular meetings with the other party's congressional leaders. (Not only did Eisenhower frequently meet with top members of Congress, he often golfed with Democratic legislators Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn.)

Some observers warn against anything too extreme. The president-elect should build ties in a "slow and deliberative way," says American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein. After the post-election battles, "people aren't going to be in the mood for anything bold," he warns.

One way to quietly build consensus is to cooperate on legislation. Education, a prescription-drug benefit, and paying down the national debt are ripe for bipartisan agreement.

A President Gore could benefit by being aggressive in cutting taxes, Mr. Ornstein says, especially that Republican favorite, the marriage-penalty tax.

A President Bush could seek compromise, for instance, on HMOs. In Texas, he signed a law giving patients limited rights to sue their healthcare providers. He could offer to do the same in Washington, though it goes against GOP orthodoxy.

"If I were him, I would ... see that as the price of getting along," says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston. And rather than a $1.3 trillion tax cut, Mr. Bush should settle for a "down payment," he says.

So far, there's talk, especially on the Bush side, of putting at least one opposite-party member in the Cabinet. But former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn recently squelched rumors that he was a top candidate to be Bush's Defense secretary, indicating that recruiting opposite-party members may be tough for the new president.

Some observers see pitfalls, too. Just as President Clinton was criticized by some for laboring to forge a Cabinet "that looks like America," so Bush or Gore "could be seen as pandering" if they get bogged down in concerns over the bipartisanship of their team, says Richard Harwood, president of The Harwood Institute, a think tank in Bethesda, Md.

The president-elect's ability to work with members of the opposite party could also be impacted by what he does in the coming days, as the post-election legal fight continues.

Bush, especially, by making his transition planning more public, may hurt efforts to build goodwill down the road.

"He ought to let this process play out without showing too much bravado," says Mr. Harwood. Bush risks irking Democrats, he says, unless he "sends some signals to the Republicans in Congress to tone down the rhetoric."

In the end, the president-elect will have to find a balance between "acknowledging that half the voters didn't vote for him - and enacting the programs he ran on," says Heritage Foundation scholar Al Felzenberg.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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