I saw Tom Daschle on TV this morning. He had the same expression on his face my dog makes when he sees me scrape meat off my plate into the garbage instead of into his food bowl. I saw Dick Gephardt on TV this morning. He looked like the kid who still hasn’t been picked for softball even though two girls and the boy with one leg longer than the other have already been chosen. I’ve listened to a lot of C-SPAN callers this morning, they generally sound like angry first wives who somehow think Republicans are responsible for their husbands taking off with the Xerox Bunny.
Now, I would be a liar if I said this didn’t make me happy. I’m sitting here — tired, hung over, desperately in need of a shower and tongue-shaving — and all I can think of is Conan’s summary of what is good in life: “To crush your enemy. See him driven before you. To hear the lamentations of the C-SPAN women.” Okay, Conan didn’t actually throw C-SPAN in there, but he would if he knew about it and, besides, he plagiarized the line anyway.
But — while gloating is only natural, and, of course, I would give anything to swivel and twirl around in an office chair singing, “…Nah, nah, nah nah, hey-ay-ay goodbye!” to Terry McAuliffe as he walks down that long, lonely cubicle-corridor at DNCHQ carrying his box of “McBride With Pride ‘02″ coffee mugs and bumper stickers — there is still work to do.
On Monday, the Democratic party and the Republican party were effectively in a boxers’ clinch. The Democrats held onto the Republicans by blurring their positions on the economy — criticizing the tax cut, but refusing to advocate its repeal — and on the war; and the Republicans clung to the Democrats by playing down their position on Social Security and “compassion.” Of course, George Bush had already spent much of his term blurring those differences — by hugging Ted Kennedy on education, for example. What happens in a clinch is that you don’t have enough room for anything but short jabs and low blows, which is why this election was so full of negative ads and lame policy proposals.
But on Wednesday, Bush broke up the clinch and so now there’s room to maneuver and throw big punches. To switch to another sports metaphor, Democrats had stopped the Republicans cold on the fifty-yard line until last night, and now the field has opened up enough for Bush to advance the ball. Credit for this development has to go to George Bush, who campaigned across the country like he’d been visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future and had been so frightened by the ghost’s vision of a Democratic Congress he decided to change the world.
So now Bush has room for some long passes. He has a Republican House and Senate which know — or should know — that they owe their power to him. This means George Bush has, at best, a year to topple Saddam Hussein and get some serious work done on the home front. For the last year Bush has been MIA on domestic policy, and if he doesn’t get some big stuff accomplished, there’s every reason to believe the GOP could lose the House, the Senate, and the presidency to Al Gore and the forces of Mordor.
The first thing Bush has got to do is move some judges through the Senate. Whether he should lead with the most controversial ones or the least is a tricky question. The Left and the Democrats will paint anybody the Republicans confirm as a hate-mongering, Orwellian goose-stepper. So the question is, does that mean you should put the most palatable ones up first, so the Dems look hysterical for no good reason — or do you put the hard-core guys up first because this may be the GOP’s only chance? I don’t know. But I do know that the conservative base demands, expects, and deserves a lot of good judges to be confirmed by the Senate because of this, and Bush needs to placate them right away.
That’s because Bush will probably need to sprint to the center now. Karl Rove knows that Republicans get murdered when they overreach — or when the media and the Democrats are successful at creating the perception that they’ve overreached. So that means we’ll be getting a lot of his Texas-style reach-across-the-aisle stuff. That’s fine, if A) it helps with the war effort, B) he’s already made conservatives happy about judges, and C) all of that bipartisan charm amounts to an attempt to say “nice doggie” until he can find a rock (to paraphrase Will Rogers).
Bush and the Republicans need to act fast on some Big Things that will consign the Democrats to rump party status and the GOP to governing party. Otherwise, we can expect the Democrats to push the ball back to the fifty-yard line again in 2004 (and if the economy is still bad then, sell all your stock in the GOP for the next decade).
One irony to keep in mind is that while this election made the government more conservative, it also made the opposition more liberal. Daschle and Gephardt are going to be punished for not attacking Bush on the war and the economy more (because that strategy didn’t work), and Democrats like Gore are going to be rewarded (for wanting to fight on those issues). When a party is completely out of power it not only stands on its base, it runs on it. That means a more antiwar and pro-tax Democratic party for the next two years. That can be to Bush’s advantage if the Democrats come to be seen as out of the mainstream while the Republicans are seen as the responsible, govern-from-the-middle types.
The first thing the GOP should do is get the homeland-security bill and the terrorism-insurance stuff taken care of right away, during this lame-duck session if at all possible. There’s no time for anything else, and it would at least hammer home the message that Republicans are getting important and necessary things done — which, in fact, is exactly what they’d be doing. After that, in the next session, don’t expect Bush to come out of blocks with a bill to pave ANWR or to fully privatize Social Security, or anything else that would allow Democrats to effectively cast the GOP as “extremists.”
One thing they could and might do is push very hard for tax simplification. I know it sounds boring, but I think this is the sort of thing which appeals to a lot of moderate Democrats who want to vote for Republicans but don’t like the social issues. Currently, the tax code is more complicated than setting the clock on God’s VCR. Streamlining and rationalizing it is something normal people would endorse but special interests would scream about. If Bush got it through, he could accurately paint himself as fighting for the little guy. He could even play the class card a bit by making sure the top 1 percent didn’t make out like bandits with the reform. If the super-rich took a small hit in order to fumigate the American tax code, it would be well worth it for us — and for them too. He could also buy support for a better tax code by cutting cap gains and enlarging the deductibility of IRAs (which is almost guaranteed to happen). Over 50 percent of Americans own stocks today, so they’re willing to listen to reason about such things.
In fact, I could envision a campaign to clean up the political system that could win McCain Democrats without causing too much trouble from Bush’s base. And besides fixing the tax code, Bush could go after the trial lawyers — which would make business happy, rattle a core base of Democratic funding but not Democratic votes, and earn the approval of history, God, and the forces of truth and light.
But the most important thing is that Bush get to work on a domestic policy now. His MIA bit hasn’t gotten him in too much trouble this last year because of the war on terrorism. But there’s no way that will last until 2004, even if the economy picks up and the war goes well. Conservatives will want to know it pays to have their guys calling the shots, and voters will be looking for excuses to throw the government either back into gridlock or back into Democratic hands. By mid 2003 it will already be too late, because half the Democratic caucus will be running for president and nothing will get done. I’m not saying Bush should ignore social conservatives, by the way. He should certainly pluck the low-hanging fruit by passing a partial-birth-abortion ban and by increasing his support for faith-based initiatives. But between an unpredictable war, re-election, and an opposition that will be alleviated from any responsibility in governing, Bush will have to be very careful or it’s back to Crawford. As for me, it’s back to bed.
There’s a new member of the NR/NRO family — none other than my friend David Frum. Not only will he be writing the back-page column formerly penned by Florence King, but we have invited him to run a regular blog-commentary-column for NRO which will be called “David Frum’s Diary.” (I’d have opted for “Memo to Self,” but what the heck.) You probably know all about David, so I’ll spare you the envy-inspiring stuff about the books and the White House job and all that. Instead, I will tell you something about him I am sure has never been reported elsewhere: My dog likes his dog. They often wrestle in our local dog park. There you have it. Welcome aboard, David, we’re lucky to have you.