Which George Bush will show up in January? The president who worked with Democrats as governor of Texas and during his first year in Washington? Or the hard-edged ideologue who ignored the minority party over the last five years and told voters that if the Democrats win, “the terrorists win and America loses.”
And which Nancy Pelosi will take over as speaker? Will it be the representative from San Francisco, the partisan warrior who welded Democrats into a highly disciplined anti-Bush guerilla force? Or will it be Nancy D’Alesandro from Baltimore, who learned the arts of governing and consensus-building from her late father, the mayor of her hometown?
The stakes are huge. Voters sent a clear distress signal. They hate the unending and unwinnable war in Iraq. And they want action on a long list of neglected domestic issues: the retirement of the baby boomers, the influx of immigrants, the underinsurance of America’s families and the over-reliance on foreign oil.
None of these problems can be solved without a return to what Hillary Clinton calls the “vital dynamic center.” The national interest demands that the current president and future speaker resurrect the most essential word in the political lexicon – compromise.
Don’t bet on it. Both leaders will have to fend off purists in their own ranks who believe that compromise equals betrayal. Bush did the right thing in calling Pelosi and inviting her to lunch, but real cooperation has to go well beyond polite gestures. It will take an enormous act of statesmanship to get the two sides to the peace table, as opposed to the dining table, and the process of reconciliation has to start with the president.
He sets the tone of the capital, and it’s been encouraging in recent days to hear his spokesman, Tony Snow, talk about the president’s wish to “detoxify American politics.” As he told Time magazine on the eve of the election: “You want people to stop calling each other names and do the people’s business.... The president has always tried to extend a hand to people on both sides of the aisle, and he’ll continue to do so.”
But the president has been Name Caller-in-Chief. He and his allies have tried to bury Democrats, not bargain with them. House leaders totally excluded Democrats from the legislative process and the Senate leader, Bill Frist, broke with tradition two years ago and campaigned directly (and successfully) to unseat the top Senate Democrat, Tom Daschle.
So what really will change beyond the language? On Iraq, the president has yet to show a glimmer of self-doubt. Sure, he dropped the phrase “stay the course,” but Vice President Dick Cheney said just before the election it was “full speed ahead.”
What’s the difference? Does the president listen to Cheney or to the voters? Does he remain convinced he’s right, or does he recognize reality and admit his war plan is not working?
On domestic issues, there’s more room to maneuver. The president and the Democrats actually agree on immigration and the need to provide undocumented workers with a path to citizenship. Any compromise would involve the president standing up to the hardliners in his own party, but he has two role models available.
One is Bill Clinton, who defied left-wing Democrats to work with Republicans and pass a welfare-reform measure. The other is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, who survived the Democratic wave by following the maxim: “Leadership is about solving problems.”
What’s needed is some trust-building. Success on immigration reform could lead to further cooperation on issues like higher auto emission standards and lower prescription drug prices. First, however, the president has to make good on his unfulfilled promise to govern as a uniter, not a divider.
But Bush cannot do this alone. Democrats have a responsibility to meet him in the center and not take their victory as a signal to rush “over the left cliff,” as Rep. Ellen Tauscher put it.
The pressures on Pelosi from the party base, and the “left-cliff” blogosphere, will be unrelenting. She represents the most liberal city in America. Her new committee chairmen all come from safe seats and are generally outside the nation’s mainstream. One helpful sign: Many of the new Democratic Congressmen defeated Republicans by running to the middle, and they could counterbalance the “left cliff” impulse.
Voters clearly want an end to partisan car bombing and the return of a government that operates from the “vital dynamic center.” But will the president and the speaker listen to them?
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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