- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2000

The postelection consensus seems to be that a narrowly divided electorate has given us a weak and divided government that will produce four years of legislative gridlock. But I think that view will be proven wrong. This could be one of the most productive reform periods in our nation's history.

The recount in Florida has confirmed that George W. Bush has won its 25 electoral votes. Barring any further challenge or changes in other state counts, he will be our next president. But, as someone once asked Ben Franklin after the Constitution had been drafted, what kind of government do we have?

The new president will take office as a result of the closest election in our history, with many voters questioning the razor-thin electoral margin, the contradictory popular vote, and thus the legitimacy and fairness of the outcome. Bitterness, cynicism and the specter of partisan recriminations threaten to further divide and poison our democracy, maybe more than at any other time in this century.

Clearly the bloodied, battle-scarred political terrain here does not look as if it could be fertile ground for meaningful economic and social reform.

Congress is still under Republican control, but just barely. The GOP lost at least three seats of its 54-seat majority in the Senate. One more seat is in doubt, which could lead to a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans in that body. Democrats picked up a couple of seats in the House, further fraying the GOP's threadbare majority.

The unsettled view from Wall Street to Main Street appears to be that the new president will be so weakened by the narrowness of his victory that he will be a chief executive without a mandate. Worse, it is claimed that the nearly equal strength of the two major parties in Congress will make it impossible for him to achieve any meaningful legislative changes.

"Big tax cuts, huge spending increases, wholesale reform of Social Security and Medicare these things are now out of the question," said Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

However, I think Mr. Bush can overcome this seemingly untenable situation for one big reason: his record and experience as governor of Texas, where he established a reputation for reaching out across the political aisle to his opponents to forge a consensus for change.

Let's start with the basics that are in Mr. Bush's favor: a White House and a Congress controlled by Republicans. If GOP leaders can maintain party unity on key votes, as they have done when they needed to over the last three Congresses, they will be able to pass budgets and other legislation that they know will be signed by the president.

Gone will be the needless bickering with the White House over routine spending bills that frequently occurred during the Clinton presidency. Working together, and with Mr. Bush's leadership, bills will be passed with the certainty they will become law.

But there is a higher level of legislative statecraft, one at which Mr. Bush can play with the best of them. As he did in Texas, he will seek alliances with the House's conservative Blue Dog Democrats (some of whose leaders come from Texas) and other like-minded Democrats.

Mr. Bush's role model in this regard is Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 faced a fiercely partisan Democratic House led by a tough-minded speaker, Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts. But Mr. Reagan was able to win the support of 60 or so House Democrats for the tax cuts and budget reforms he enacted. Like the former president, Mr. Bush, too, is proposing across-the-board income tax cuts, restoring our defenses, deregulating our economy and limiting the size and growth of government.

Mr. Reagan fought for his programs against strong Democratic opposition, but in the end he was usually willing to compromise to get what he could and was famous for getting together after hours with Mr. O'Neill to swap stories over a drink. Mr. Bush, who ran on a pledge to change the partisan tone here, will likely forge similar alliances with key Democrats in Congress.

And, like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush will go before the American people to enlist their support for his agenda. We do not know whether he can be as successful as the man from California, but my guess is he will be a very effective salesman for his proposals.

One area where he could be far more successful than anyone expects will be tax policy. If the economy continues to slow as declining job growth, falling factory orders and a lower GDP rate suggest his tax cuts will be critical to keeping the economic expansion going.

At a minimum, ending the marriage penalty, abolishing the death tax, expanding IRA deductions and doubling the per-child tax credit will easily win bipartisan support. Only this time, with Mr. Clinton gone, there will be a president in the Oval Office who will sign them. Ditto for the partial-birth abortion ban and tort reform to curb the excesses of trial lawyers.

Increased spending for a depleted and under-equipped military will be a legislative slam-dunk. Fast-track authority for the president to negotiate new free trade agreements would also pass easily.

Some of Mr. Bush's bigger reforms letting workers put a small part of their payroll taxes into private investment retirement accounts are admittedly going to be much more difficult to enact with such a narrow majority in Congress. But on the whole, I'm betting a President Bush is going to be more successful in getting his way on Capitol Hill than anyone now thinks.

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