A VERY CLOSE election with a narrowly divided Congress could produce an era of consensus and collaboration - or one of fractiousness and polarization. While many yearn for the former, my hunch is that we'll see the latter. And polarization may not be entirely unwarranted.
Though George W. Bush posed in the campaign as the great conciliator, his party's agenda is well to the right of most voters. Republicans in the House almost got Bill Clinton's scalp two years ago, and many still feel cheated.
If they win control of all three branches for the first time since 1953, Republicans will push hard for a very conservative agenda, notwithstanding their minuscule congressional majority and the fact that Gore actually won the popular vote.
If Bush is certified as the next president, the contrast with the last period of unified GOP government could not be more dramatic. The president then was Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero elected in a landslide and essentially a man above party. Ike nearly ran as a Democrat. He worked well with Democrats (who took back Congress in 1954.)
Ike was probably the last president with a genuine consensus agenda. Rather than trying to repeal the New Deal, he worked with both parties on such landmark uses of public investment as the interstate highway system. By contrast, Bush embraces much of the far-right agenda - a huge tax cut for the wealthy, a rollback of public services with an attendant shift to vouchers, removal of many regulatory protections for ordinary citizens, dismantling the wall between church and state, infringements on reproductive choice.
A minority of ''New Democrats'' (another way of spelling Republican) may go along with some of this agenda, but most Democratic voters have very different views. In this climate, Democrats in Congress would be fools to opt for conciliation and compromise.
Rather, they should be liberated by the prospect of constructive opposition. At last, one governing party will be held accountable for results. That party happens to have an agenda that most Americans oppose.
Indeed, Gore did not run as well as the Democratic program. More voters agreed with Democratic issues than voted for Gore.
Historically, the party that loses a presidential election almost always gains seats in the House and Senate election two years later. With a majority of just one or two in the Senate and perhaps four in the House, Republicans will be very vulnerable in 2002.
Rather than splitting the difference with Bush (if he is in fact the next president), Democrats would do well to sharpen up their own agenda. Most Democratic voters were somewhat disappointed that Gore was such a feeble champion of what they wanted to see enacted.
Imagine if Democrats, as a party, put universal health insurance into national debate? And universal, high-quality child care and pre-kindergarten? And real campaign finance reform?
Gore's problem as a candidate wasn't just that he kept reinventing his personality but that he sent mixed messages on his program. When Bush charged that Gore wanted to increase public spending, Gore might have said: ''You bet I do. How else are we going to finance drug coverage for seniors, or health insurance for all kids, or better schools?''
Instead, Gore took the charge as an insult and insisted that he was a champion cutter of big government! No wonder voters were confused.
It would also be salutary if Democrats got off the foolish kick that we need to pay off the national debt. The nation thrived during the post World War II boom with much higher debt levels (relative to the size of the economy) than we have today.
All that money Gore wanted to use to pay off the debt is money that we need more for social investment than for private money markets. Do we really need another trillion dollars for Wall Street so a thousand more dot-com start-ups can go broke - or universal health insurance?
Which brings me to Ralph Nader. Much of Nader's program included issues many Democrats were waiting for their own standard-bearer to embrace. But, in context, a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush. A lot of Democrats felt torn between an uncertain leader and a spoiler.
Next time, the Democrats should champion ordinary people at more than the level of slogan and not try to blur the issues. Not only would the Nader vote come home but a lot of other voters might find a reason to vote Democratic.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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