Kinder, gentler: New White House motto?

Bush may have to compromise more on agenda, with Senate in Democratic hands.

For the first 18 weeks of his presidency, George W. Bush pursued tax cuts, missile defense, and other ambitious policies in a style both polite and provocative.

Supporters called it courageous leadership - especially given the photo-finish 2000 election. Critics saw it as brazen, even arrogant.

Whatever it was, now it may all change.

True, his approach did yield a tax-cut victory, but the president paid a heavy price: loss of Republican control of the Senate. In the end, Mr. Bush's strategy alienated not only many Democrats, but also some GOP moderates - including the newly independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont.

If the Senate ends up being steered by Democrats, as is widely expected, the president may opt to subtly alter his style - and perhaps even his agenda. Suddenly, a prescription-drug benefit looks a bit more likely. Suddenly, compromise with Congress may be more in vogue. Suddenly, Tom Daschle, the top Senate Democrat, gets a new invitation to the White House.

Broken china

The Bush team was "pretty bold," says Patrick Griffin, who directed President Clinton's congressional affairs office. That tactic, he says, "breaks a lot of china." Now "they're going to have to take another approach, or nothing is going to get done."

He expects the administration to adopt a more compromise-ready stance, such as the one it is using on education. To push the education plan, which passed the House Wednesday, the White House worked with liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. It even surrendered some pillars of its plan, including vouchers for private-school tuition.

This could be a model for new relations with Congress. But don't expect Bush to give up any major pieces of his agenda, says Al Felzenberg of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Having the Democrats in control of the Senate injects a "permanent uncertainty" into Washington life, he says, but "doesn't necessarily unhinge the president's programs."

He points to the history of evenly divided government. When John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in 1960 by just 112,000 votes, he didn't kowtow to the man he beat, says Dr. Felzenberg: "He wasn't asking, 'What would Dick Nixon do?' " In fact, Kennedy is today remembered for ideas Nixon opposed, such as the Peace Corps and the space program.

One administration official predicts subtle adjustments: Bush has been "committed to promoting everything he offered during his campaign, and I think that will continue," the official says, although one issue ripe for compromise could be the so-called patient's bill of rights.

Yet others see the Jeffords episode as a cautionary one. The White House is "making efforts only to appeal to the right, and there aren't enough votes on the right," says independent pollster John Zogby. "He's not going to win re-election unless he wins in the middle."

Senator Jeffords' comments yesterday hinted that that philosophy was the major reason for his defection. He cited "serious, substantive reservations" about Bush's budget, and added: "Looking ahead, I can see more and more issues where I disagree with the president."

Who needs whom?

While the White House may not greatly shift its policies, it may look again at its strategy and tactics. Many say officials bungled by trying to strong-arm Jeffords, not realizing they needed him more than he needed them.

It's possible, of course, that Bush and the Democrats will use this week's turn of events as a springboard to a productive relationship. Indeed, a new Zogby poll finds that Americans prefer, 2 to 1, a divided Congress.

Adds Mr. Griffin: "The public has lots of confidence - even if they don't know the details - when a policy is bipartisan."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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