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Wednesday, December 20, 2000 | Print this story

Be of Good Cheer, Dems; All Isn't Lost

By MARK HERTSGAARD


     I'm no fan of George W. Bush, but unlike most people on the left, I'm looking forward to his presidency. Not because I favor an end to legal abortion, an accelerated missile defense program, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or any other nefarious deeds liberals darkly predict, but because I'm confident Bush will achieve few or none of these.
     Democrats should cheer up. The next four years should be a time of wicked fun and great opportunities, if they have the wit to grasp them. Bush's adversaries should begin by remembering something most Republicans are ignoring in their rush to seize power: Yes, Bush will be hampered by the lack of a popular mandate and a narrowly divided Congress, but his real problem is that he's in over his head.
     To be a successful president is never easy, even for someone who's up to the job, and Bush clearly is not. Of course, critics said the same about Ronald Reagan, and he went on to become one of the most successful presidents of the 20th century.
     But George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan. Even those who lamented Reagan's shallow intellect and disagreed with nearly everything he did as president acknowledge that he fundamentally redirected the course of American politics at home and abroad.
     The trouble for Bush--and for Republican strategists who think Bush can simply follow the Reagan playbook--is that not all lightweights are created equal. Reagan did not know much, but he cared deeply about core issues--the role and size of government, the communist threat--and his ability to convey those convictions with authority persuaded Congress and the public to support his agenda. He was not called the Great Communicator for nothing.
     Reagan also possessed considerable shrewdness when it came to the daily thrust and parry of politics. He knew how to bluff, when to compromise, what favors to offer a wavering member of Congress to get a bill passed--in short, how to play the game.
     Bush inspires no one (save perhaps hard-core conservatives eager to end the Clinton era at any cost) because his smirking demeanor is hard to respect and because he mistakes bromides like "leave no child behind" for meaningful calls to civic action.
     Bush boasts about his success at working with Democrats while the governor of Texas, but bipartisanship came easy there because the state's Democrats and Republicans have long shared the same view of the role of government. Gov. Bush's good-ol'-boy act will fall flat on Capitol Hill--if, that is, Democrats decide to oppose him, as they surely will after this poisonous autumn.
     Or will they? Democrats may instead be gulled into passivity by talk of the need for bipartisanship. That would be a major error, given that conservatives like House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Tex.) openly disdain such talk. Democrats need to remember that a president is not a king. An obvious point, but it bears repeating: Just because Bush captured the White House doesn't mean he gets to do whatever he wants.
     Those who fear a Bush presidency forget how hard it is for any president to achieve his goals. First, he must persuade Congress, the media, Wall Street and the public to support him. Reagan was famously skilled at this. Bush, however, is Reagan without the convictions and gravitas, which will make it difficult for him to exploit the presidential bully pulpit.
     And no one else can do the job for him. Vice President-elect Dick Cheney can run the bureaucracy and Secretary of State-designate Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice can oversee foreign affairs, but only the president can rally and lead the nation.
     For all these reasons, Bush is going to find being president more difficult than he expects. Indeed, he could fail so spectacularly that, like his father before him and Jimmy Carter before that, he could cause his party lasting damage.
     Bush's best hope for a successful presidency is to get congressional Democrats to go along with the Republican agenda in the name of bipartisanship. And if that gambit works, Democrats will have only themselves to blame.

- - -

Mark Hertsgaard Is the Author of "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future" (Broadway Books, 1999) and "On Bended Knee: the Press and the Reagan Presidency" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988)

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