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Jewish World Review June 1, 2001 / 10 Sivan, 5761

George Will

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The Politics of Personal Obstruction -- THE answers are: 49, 49, 49, 49, 48, 48, 48, 49, 48. The questions are:

What was the percentage (all these percentages are rounded off) of the popular vote that Bill Clinton won in 1996? What was the percentage of the votes that Republican candidates for the House of Representatives won in 1996? What was the percentage that Democratic candidates won? What was the percentage of votes that Republican candidates for the House won in 1998? What was the percentage Democratic candidates won? What was the percentage of the popular vote George W. Bush won in 2000? What was the percentage Al Gore won? What was the percentage of votes for House candidates won by Republicans in 2000? What was the percentage won by Democratic candidates?

These numbers, compiled by JWR's Michael Barone for the forthcoming edition of his "The Almanac of American Politics" , illustrate the fact that deadlock is three election cycles old. Which is why the balance of power can be shifted by an event as trivial as James Jeffords's epiphany, in which he discovered that the Republican Party is objectionably (to him) pro-life and in favor of tax cuts and missile defenses -- as it has been during his last five campaigns for House and Senate seats.

Critics say President Bush brought his current troubles on himself by asserting a mandate after narrowly winning the presidency. But if he had carried everything other than, say, Minnesota and the District of Columbia, critics would still deny he had a mandate. No matter how a Republican wins the presidency, Democrats, including most of the media, deny that a mandate resulted. When Dwight Eisenhower carried 80 of 98 states in two elections, it was dismissed as "purely personal" because, as was said, his smile was his political philosophy. When Reagan won decisively in 1980, the result was minimized as a negative judgment on President Carter, devoid of positive content.

Two days after the 1984 election, The Washington Post carried this unintentionally hilarious eight-column headline: DEMOCRATS CHALLENGE PRESIDENT'S LANDSLIDE AS A MANDATE. Asked who could have beaten Reagan, a Mondale aide said: "Robert Redford. Maybe Walter Cronkite." Thus was Reagan's 49-state non-mandate (he won 40 times more electoral votes than Walter Mondale's total from Minnesota and the District of Columbia) dismissed as purely personal -- more proof of the Smile Theory of history.

The large deeds of Reagan's first term -- principally his tax cuts, but also the firing of the air traffic controllers, which, significantly, required no congressional role -- were done by August of his first year. Similarly, even before Jeffords jumped ship, much of the business of Bush's first-term agenda was done. He had achieved about 95 percent of his first priority, the tax cut. Missile defense had been affirmed and now awaits the maturation of the requisite technology. About the education bill, conservatives are disappointed. However, the bill, which substantially increases education spending and which passed the House 384 to 45, makes ludicrous Jeffords's lament that Bush ignores the middle while appeasing the right.

Education is supposed to be Jeffords's preoccupation. Consider what was occurring as he defected.

Most conservative Republicans in the House voted against final passage of the education bill, complaining that Bush had worked too closely with liberal Democrats (e.g., Rep. George Miller and Sen. Ted Kennedy). Indeed, more House Democrats than Republicans voted for final passage. Consider two congressmen from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, both of them independents. Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, and Virginia's very conservative Virgil Goode, who came to Congress as a Democrat but who voted to impeach President Clinton and caucuses with the Republicans, voted together against the bill's most crucial component, the testing provisions.

Given the modern use of Senate rules -- filibusters and threats of them -- nothing important happens if 41 senators strenuously object. So most Bush objectives were not going to be accomplished even if Jeffords had remained -- or, as some would tartly say, had become -- a Republican.

Gridlock is the Democrats' delight, given the agenda of today's reactionary liberalism -- preventing tax cuts, preventing school choice, preventing partial privatization of Social Security, preventing tort reform, preventing any limits on abortion, preventing any curtailment of racial preferences, preventing the traditional exercise of presidential discretion in making judicial nominations, preventing increased energy production by drilling here or putting power plants there.

However, obstruction is not an optimal program on which to run, in either 2002 or 2004. The argument in those elections has already been framed.

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