The overriding question inside the White House both before and after the election was whether the president's team would react to defeat by scourging Republican heretics or preparing to battle Democrats. The generally accepted answer: Chief of Staff John Sununu will insist on scourging, not preparing. Hence, before a way is found for President Bush to respond to revitalized and reinforced Democrats the next two years, Sununu must be talked out of internecine warfare among Republicans. In turn, to forgo that pleasure would require an admission that the election was a serious defeat.
But defeat is denied. Senior aides on Wednesday expressed delight that things turned out so well the day before -- retaining the governorship of California and avoiding a double-digit House loss. Twenty years ago, when Republicans tasted defeat in President Richard Nixon's midterm election, he and his advisers sat down to determine what should be done next. There is no such wisdom in the Bush White House, where the spin doctors believe their own spinning.
Indeed, Sununu harbors animosity against Republicans who voted against the budget he helped negotiate with the Democrats. He has never forgiven House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who seems destined to be frozen out of the White House in the wake of his near defeat in Georgia. Sununu privately blames Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, a key Gingrich ally who opposed the budget deal, for the loss there of Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who supported it. But in truth, Weber was a tireless worker for his former boss, the senator, cutting TV spots and campaigning with him in the final days.
The ironic estrangement of Sununu, the resident conservative ideologue inside the White House, and the party's right wing was illustrated on NBC's "Meet the Press" the Sunday before the election. The chief of staff tacitly accepted the premise that Sen. Jesse Helms' campaign spot against affirmative action was racist. Helms' narrow victory does not diminish resentment toward Sununu for his saying of the senator's campaign, 48 hours before the polls opened, that "this administration has worked awfully hard to get that kind of an aspect out of any campaigning." Instead of mending fences with Helms now, Sununu polishes means of punishing recalcitrant Republicans.
That ignores the deep depression that engulfs Republican politicians, particularly conservatives, as they survey the post-election landscape. The president faces a House in which sustaining presidential vetoes will become markedly more difficult. The party's new constituency among the young and in the Sun Belt has eroded, and the development of Texas and Florida into two of the nation's strongest Republican states abruptly halted.
What's more, for the first time in well over a decade, the Democrats have a theme: "fairness." The Republicans do not. Given these circumstances, the logical conclusion would be that the president and his men have made mistakes.
Instead, the post-election mood at the White House brims with self-justification. Against the people's verdict that tax increasers suffer at the polls and that something bad has happened to the Republican Party, Bush's two most important policy-makers, Sununu and Budget Director Richard Darman, insist that they were on the mark in agreeing to higher taxes.
Lower level staffers have an impression that the president himself will get more deeply involved in domestic affairs in the next two years, but they confide they are skeptical. There is in fact a large element of doubt that Tuesday's results will bring about any change.