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Jewish World Review Dec. 22, 2000/ 25 Kislev, 5761

Charles Krauthammer

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Bipartisan blather -- FIRST THERE WAS the campaign. Then there was the post-election recount campaign (Bill Daley memorably declaring in the wee hours of Election Night: "Our campaign continues"). Now there is the pre-inaugural campaign. The aim of the first two was to defeat George W. Bush. Those having failed, the aim of the third -- the current campaign -- is to neuter him.

The instrument of emasculation is "bipartisanship." Washington is awash in it. The Democrats demand it. The media wax poetic about its virtues, then turn stern in admonishing George W. that he can't govern without it. Even Bush says the right words about it.

Let's hope he doesn't mean them.

It is an iron law of Washington that when everybody agrees on something, it must necessarily be wrong. (See: the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the nuclear freeze.) The current mania for bipartisanship is wrongness with a purpose, a not-so-subtle attempt to strip George Bush of his victory.

The notion is that because he did not win office legitimately -- on "Meet the Press," House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt refused Tim Russert's repeated invitations to acknowledge Bush's legitimacy -- he cannot govern without bending to the will of the opposition in Congress.

The premise is nonsense. Under the rules and laws that govern the country, Bush won the election (three times, in fact). He does not need legitimacy conferred upon him by anyone, least of all by an opposition that does not wish him well.

But he must seek it, says the chorus. Because the country was so evenly split at the polls, Republicans have no mandate. As Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle put it, "the American people have divided the responsibility for leadership right down the middle."

Not quite. In fact, for the first time in a half-century, the American people have given the Republicans control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

Of course it was very close. But where were these voices calibrating mandates and legitimacy four years ago? Bill Clinton won the presidency with 49 percent of the vote -- a mere one percent more than Bush received in 2000 -- and he lost both houses of Congress.

This year Bush's party won 221 House seats; in '96 Clinton's won just 207. This year Bush's party held 50 Senate seats; in '96 Clinton's held just 45.

So: Bush, with 48 percent of the vote and majorities in both houses, has no mandate, but Clinton, who had 49 percent of the vote and lost both houses, does? I don't recall the college of pundits decreeing at the time that Clinton could govern only if he acquiesced to the will of Gingrich and Company.

This fuzzy (and partisan) math is in perfect keeping with the Washington establishment's definition of partisanship. When Democrats act like Democrats, say, on civil rights, that is called acting on principle. When Republicans act like Republicans, say, on abortion, they are acting like ideologues. When Republicans act like Democrats -- on anything -- they are being bipartisan.

Consider impeachment. It was raw partisanship on the part of Republicans. Right? Interesting, then, that at the trial, every single Democrat voted with the president, while five Republicans crossed the aisle on one count, 10 on the other. Who acted in lockstep partisanship?

Last Sunday, the estimable Bob Schieffer, not known for partisanship, spoke for his colleagues when in his weekly colloquy he welcomed the fact that Bush was "back in the [political] middle, but already the 'my way or no way' crowd" -- i.e., conservatives -- "is trying to force him back to the right. If he is able to resist and isolate them, he will find a middle ground occupied by friends, allies and if I may say so, most of the American people." Washington people, especially.

Translation: Spurn your Republican base, embrace Gephardt-Daschle. This advice is, I'm sure, well-meaning. But it amounts to an invitation to political suicide. Yes, Bush will have to reach out to Democrats on certain issues at certain times. But there is no reason he should deviate from the platform he proposed, including the sweeping tax cuts he offered in the campaign.

He should try to pass them with his narrow majorities. If he cannot, he'll then have to cut back. But to cut back preemptively -- to accede to the idea that the Republican Party, having won the three elected branches of government, cannot govern -- is to proclaim his impotence on Day One.

Bipartisanship? Sure. Bush should talk the talk. Reach out, assuage, hold hands, conciliate. Lovely. But when it comes to policy and legislation, he must not walk the walk, or he effectively concedes his legitimacy and forfeits his presidency.

He has to start with the fact that it is his presidency and his agenda. The time for compromise is later, if ever.

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