Bush has upper hand

After several days of viewing the aftershocks from the Jeffords defection, I've decided this might be a good moment to address a few questions.

Q: How big a happening was it? Was it indeed a political earthquake?

A: A senator leaves his party and tilts the power over to the other party. That's without precedent and, despite the president's shrug-of-the-shoulders reaction, he and his entire administration had to be shaken to their boots over Sen. James Jeffords's announcement that he was jumping ship. Since then, President Bush has sought to convince us that nothing much has changed. He will be marching forward successfully with his agenda just as he has in the past - with the help of Southern Democratic senators plus a House that remains Republican.

Maybe. If the new majority leader, Tom Daschle, should decide to be actively destructive, he could - in his new powerful role, where he will control the Senate agenda - do much to slow down or even derail Bush's programs that will follow the tax cut bill.

Q: But will Mr. Daschle now work forcefully to obstruct Bush's programs?

A: It's likely the new Senate majority leader will continue his efforts to shoot Bush's programs down - and with even more vigor than before.

Q: So the cards now are with the Democrats and not with Bush?

A: No. I think, as president, Bush still has the stronger hand. But he is going to have to work much harder to keep his coalition in the Senate intact. He says nothing has happened, but he knows that it has. And he has reason to be worried that there might be more defections. He's doubtlessly heard the reports that some Democratic senators have been working on Sen. John McCain to leave the GOP. Then, over this last weekend, Daschle visited with Mr. McCain at his Sedona, Ariz., home - followed by McCain's statement that he's not leaving the Republican Party. But he has to know that there are other Republican moderates in both the Senate and the House who are uncomfortable with Bush's conservative policies - and just might flee the party.

Q: What, then, does Bush need to do?

A: Well, in order to use his bully pulpit effectively, he must keep his 55 to 60 percent public approval rating. That's come about in large part because most Americans have taken to this president. They find him personally a welcome contrast from his predecessor. The public seems ready for a lower-key presidency. Also, Bush has just pushed through an exceedingly popular program - his immense tax cut.

But now Bush is moving into truly controversial issues: education, environment, energy, and defense. Here, if he isn't very careful, his popularity will fall off. So I think Bush will need to moderate his conservative approach on these and other issues, or he's going to face the prospect of a presidency where he, like his father before him, will be able to get very little done.

Q: And will Bush moderate these programs? Will he become a compromiser in order to pull his initiatives through Congress?

A: I think he will. Further, I think, politically, he can. He now is in a position to say to conservatives who will be upset by his compromising: "Look, it's the only way I can get these programs through. It's the fault of those Democrats in Congress, particularly the Democratic majority in the Senate."

I think the conservatives will accept this explanation. They'll grumble; but they'll stick with Bush. They have no other place to go. All this will work to keep Bush's popularity up. And a strong popularity will help Bush work out better (for him) compromises with the Democrats.

As he continues this approach, Bush will also continue to be able to use the bully pulpit to his advantage. It would all work together - should he move in this direction and use this strategy. Again, I think he will.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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