As the outlines of a surprising victory began to emerge last Tuesday night, CBS's voluble anchor, Dan Rather, overstated the truth only slightly when he declared that Republicans now controlled the White House, the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court. He could have added the Federal Reserve and a host of alphabet-soup agencies. Not since the Eisenhower administration has the party of business and capital had such a lock on the machinery of government.
White House aides quickly dusted off discarded planks from the old Bush domestic agenda while corporate lobbyists prepared their wish lists for members of Congress whose victories were financed with record amounts of corporate money and support. Shares of pharmaceutical, energy and defense stocks staged a brief rally. Democrats, who lost the White House two years ago despite presiding over the longest economic boom in history, wondered aloud why they were equally inept at turning an economic slowdown to their electoral advantage.
The Republicans may find themselves less well prepared for the victory than they were for the battle. Any mandate for overhauling the tax code, reforming Social Security or balancing the budget awaits detailed plans. And while Democrats may be forced to accept a new Department of Homeland Security that would waive some civil service protections, Republicans show no sign of making the kind of compromises that will save cherished goals like tort reform, Arctic oil drilling and a capital gains tax cut from Senate filibuster.
On the business side of the legislative agenda, Republican rule may translate into a modest prescription-drug benefit for seniors, bankruptcy reform, government backing for terrorism insurance and a largely revenue-neutral simplification of corporate and individual income taxes. And contrary to their traditional defense of states' rights, Republican committee chairmen may be able to push through federal standards and preemption in many areas, including privacy and utility regulation, where companies now face pesky and inconsistent state regulation.
The main political challenge for President Bush may be to use his new clout not just to roll Democrats but also, more significant, to rein in those in his own party who would rather hold out for the whole loaf than get most of one through judicious compromise.