Surviving The Coming Clash

My fellow conservatives: You know those Democrats who tried to take the election away from George W. Bush? Well, now we're married to them. President W is going to take control of the White House having won fewer votes than the guy he beat. The Republicans have a slight majority in the House of Representatives, but for the next few years the House will be a sideshow. The real action will take place in the Senate, where it takes 60 votes to override a filibuster and get things through. The Republicans have only 50 votes.

It gets worse. Forget the solemn bipartisanship talk of the moment. The Democrats are secretly so mad that they might as well be a bunch of Bobby Knights, throwing chairs in the cloakroom. And this election shifted the Senate significantly to the left, with newcomers like Hillary Clinton, New Jersey's Jon Corzine, Minnesota's Mark Dayton, and Michigan's Debbie Stabenow.

Look in their eyes. As Marshall Whittman of the Hudson Institute notes, they look the way we looked in 1993. They believe a realignment is coming in their direction. For liberals, the lesson of the 2000 election is that the left can win. They got massive support from unions, minorities and university-town liberals. Demographic changes mean that they may be on the verge of leading a majority coalition. There are more black and Hispanic voters than before. The Information Age towns are turning Democratic. The Silicon Valley area used to be Republican; now all seven House members in that area are Democrats. The same trend applies to the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and the office-park suburbs outside of Philadelphia and Chicago. Democratic confidence--no, call it arrogance--means they are not going to be easy to work with.

Furthermore, the Democrats have better leadership. Minority Leader Tom Daschle is their Dick Cheney, which means he may seem calm and measured, but he's actually a formidable partisan. Any time there's a public debate between him and GOP leader Trent Lott, Daschle wins.

The temptation will be to try to re-create the Reagan coalition. Rally the Republicans and then try to pry off centrist and Southern Democrats and push through a reasonably conservative agenda. It's worth a try, but don't get your hopes up. There are a few centrist Democrats in the Senate--John Breaux of Louisiana, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut--but not as many as there were in Reagan's day. Moreover, they're going to be reluctant to break party ranks. The liberals already hate the centrists, so the knives would be out for any one of them who voted with the GOP.

When the conflicts come, the "grown-ups" in the Beltway establishment will call for centrist compromise, which means they'll dump all over anything that seems conservative. They'll mention the words "Tom DeLay" and all of polite society will scream in horror and lock their kids in the storm cellar. Meanwhile, some conservatives will say: "To heck with this, let's pick some fights and use them to win more seats in 2002." But there are only a handful of vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election in 2002. And if Bush campaigned on anything, it was to change the tone in Washington and get things done. This means the combatants like Dick Armey need to cool it, at least in terms of what they say publicly. No accomplishments, no re-election.

The only way for Bush to thrive is to scramble the battlefield. He comes to a Washington that is deadlocked in decades-old big-government-vs.-small-government trench warfare. But way back on July 22, 1999, Bush gave a speech in Indianapolis that showed a way out of this stalemate. Bush offered a compassionate-conservative agenda that featured limited but energetic government programs. The issues he addressed then are ones Democrats love: homelessness, drug addiction, poverty. But the approaches--tax credits, some federal grants to faith-based charities--were genuinely conservative.

Bush could follow that up with other programs that redraw the current battle lines. Both lefties and righties hate corporate pork. W's first budget could tackle some of that. He could take advantage of the inevitable campaign-finance fight to craft a conservative version. Then, having racked up some victories, he'd instill some fear in Democrats, which could be used to push through tax cuts and Social Security reform. In the meantime, conservatives need to practice an ancient virtue: patience.