Will either George W. Bush or John Kerry be able to govern after this election is over?
Rep. Jim Leach, a moderate Republican from Iowa, is not optimistic. "If there is a certitude about this election," says Leach, "it is that both presidential candidates are going to be attacked personally. That's going to undercut the presidential deference that should be given to anyone who wins the next presidential election."
The intense polarization of politics, aggravated under the Bush presidency, should require Bush and Kerry to explain not only what they will do for the next four years but also how, in the current climate, they propose to get it done.
The Bush approach is already clear enough: Use very narrow congressional majorities to push through an ideological program, especially on taxes and budgets. On only one issue -- his No Child Left Behind Act -- did Bush choose to deal with the mainstream of his opposition. Even there he has reneged on the spending commitments he made to get his bill passed.
Kerry, says a top aide to a Republican senator who often votes with his party's moderates, would have a "tremendous opportunity" to govern differently -- and he would be required to, given GOP gains in Congress since 1994. True, the bottom could fall out from under Bush, and Kerry could enter the White House with Democratic majorities in both houses. Seen as more likely now are the other scenarios: Kerry wins a close election that leaves both the House and Senate under Republican control, or that only one chamber, probably the Senate, tips Democratic.
A Republican House as currently configured could make Kerry's life hell in a way that Tip O'Neill's 1981 Democratic-controlled House did not for Ronald Reagan. "Reagan dealt with a Democratic majority in the House, but there wasn't the same dynamic we have today," said the Senate Republican aide. "This House is far more partisan, far more polarized, far more bitter and far more disciplined." In addition, there were many more conservative Democrats in the 1981 Congress than there will be moderate, let alone liberal, Republicans in the new House.
In fact, says Leach, because congressional districts are increasingly drawn to guarantee victory for one party or the other, incumbents worry mostly about primary challenges from ideological hard-liners. "There is no more underrepresented group in America today than moderates in both parties," Leach says. As for the tone of politics, Leach understates the case: "People to the right and people to the left personally don't like the other side."
One effect of a Kerry victory might be to bring out into the open Republican divisions that are already beginning to surface. Former representative Steve Gunderson, a Wisconsin Republican, speaks of "a coming civil war in the party" spurred by the efforts of conservatives to purge moderates from its ranks. This civil war over social issues is compounded by new divisions over deficits and the use of tax cuts not only to "promote growth" -- there is, says Gunderson, "nothing wrong with that" -- but also to "shut down the legitimate role of government."
Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, as close as there is in Congress to an old-time liberal Republican, believes that "there would be an acceptance from moderate Republicans for rolling back some of the upper-income tax cuts to address the deficit." Both Chafee and Leach believe that because the 2001 Bush tax cuts are set to expire by 2011, Kerry might successfully negotiate some increases in exchange for making parts of the tax cut permanent. Leach is particularly interested in reforming rather than repealing the estate tax.
Chafee also thinks a Kerry victory could concentrate the minds of even more conservative Republicans. "Some of the conservatives could start to worry themselves and might accept more than you'd expect," Chafee says. "We all have to get elected, and we all have to listen to voters."
Chafee has yet to endorse Bush for reelection. When asked if he will, Chafee replies, "I'm a Republican," which he cheerfully admits is not an answer to the question.
"The people are thirsting for someone who could forge some common ground, and a lot of President Bush's 2000 campaign was based on that," Chafee says. "His 'I'm a uniter, not a divider' resonated with a lot of people." Yet, Chafee added sadly, "Here we are again." No wonder Bush is loading up this year's Republican National Convention speakers' list with moderates, much as he loaded up the dais four years ago with African Americans and Latinos. This year symbolism may not be enough.