The bitter post-election of 2000 is over, and every politician in America is making grand, gracious overtures to the other side in an orgy of conciliatory blather. They're using nice words that the American public needs to and wants to hear. But all this kissy-kissy sweet talk is sheer baloney.
Americans patiently waited out the wild five weeks of trying to sort out who won this most unusual election because, as a whole, the American public is not especially partisan. It was America's political establishment - career politicians, party activists, and the staffs of partisan think tanks and Washington-based interest groups - that went ballistic. They're still angry.
None of them had expected the vote to be so hair-splittingly close. Suddenly, the difference between possessing the awesome power of the American presidency and having no power at all came down to a few thousand votes, then a few hundred. And with Americans having already voted, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans were constrained by the possibility that voters might punish them for excessive zeal in pursuit of the prize. Neither side had much to lose by escalating the post-election battle into no-holds-barred combat through the courts and on television, and everything to gain if they won.
In a larger sense, the episode marked another escalation of a bitter civil war in Washington whose beginnings can be traced to 1987, when Ronald Reagan's nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court was rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate after an extensive media campaign by his opponents. Hostilities resumed in 1991 in acrimonious hearings to confirm George Bush's pick of Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice, and then again the next year when independent counsel Lawrence Walsh indicted several Bush administration officials on the Friday before Election Day. The civil war grew more virulent during the Clinton administration. In 1995, Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House, engaged in a budget show-down with Bill Clinton that temporarily closed the entire US government. From early on in the administration, independent counsel Ken Starr carried out a Republican-backed jeremiad against the President and his wife, which culminating in Clinton's impeachment.
The war continues. George W. may sincerely want to 'reach out' to congressional Democrats but the Democrats don't want to reach back. They have a fighting chance of regaining control of one or both Houses of Congress in the elections of 2002, in which every seat in the House of Representatives and at least one-third of the Senate will be up for grabs. That election occurs just a bit more than 18 months after Inauguration Day, which means that every Bill Congress considers and every issue that claims the national stage will be campaign fodder for 2002. Democrats will want to take strong stands and draw bright lines between themselves and Republicans in order to show the folks back home that it matters who's in control of Congress.
Expect no better from the Republicans. Despite Bush's sugary rhetoric about 'compassionate conservatism', the Grand Old Party is now dominated by a virulent right-wing that thinks it's finally entitled to have its own way. Republicans haven't had even nominal control of Congress and the Presidency (and, some would say, the Supreme Court) for half a century. The intervening years have spawned a generation of uncompromising ideologues such as House Whip Tom DeLay and Majority Leader Dick Armey. When it comes to helping the poor, they're Social Darwinists, but they're government activists when it comes to personal decisions about abortion or sexual preference. On foreign policy, they're confirmed isolationists who want to spend billions building a highly-dubious missile defence shield around the nation. They're eager to do battle on all fronts.
Perhaps Bush would have a small chance of finding a workable middle ground if he came to Washington loaded with experience and political finesse. But he doesn't. Even his father's old hands, such as Vice-President-elect Dick Cheney, have been out of power for eight years, and a lot has changed in America and the world in the interim. Other familiar faces such as Colin Powell, Bush's likely pick for Secretary of State, have almost no political experience outside the limited domains they once worked in - in Powell's case, a military command. Moreover, recent history suggests that southern governors-turned-Presidents have a hard time making the transition: Bill Clinton's White House was in chaos for the first two years, and Clinton had been in state politics for more than two decades before he assumed America's highest office. George W. has all of six years in state politics under his belt.
Had the American public given Bush a clear electoral mandate to move forward with one or two initiatives, he might still have cobbled together a small majority to enact them. But the public did not. According to opinion polls, Bush's signature $1.3 trillion tax cut was never popular - and the Republican Speaker of the House has already pronounced it dead. The rest of Bush's platform didn't even register on the public's consciousness. Indeed, apart from the fireworks that came immediately after the voting was complete, the election of 2000 was a snore. Only about half of eligible voters even bothered going to the booths (a tiny fraction higher than in 1996) and the people who did vote were motivated more by their dislike of the candidate they voted against than by enthusiasm for the person they voted in favour of.
So what is the President-Elect to do? Keep public expectations low, and pray that at least the economy stays reasonably strong. Pray not to God but to Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. On Tuesday, the day after the nation's electors meet to make Bush's presidency official, Greenspan and his Open Market Committee will decide whether the economy is slowing enough to quell any possibility of price inflation or so much so that a recession is likely next year, and, accordingly, either keep short-term interest rates where they are or lower them. Should they do the former and keep them there through the first quarter of 2001, there's a better than even chance that a recession will set in - if not next year, then in 2002. That will mean a Democratic takeover of Congress, and a one-term presidency for George W.
George W.'s father lost his presidency in 1992 in large part because the American economy was by then in the dog house. It was no accident that Bill Clinton's campaign theme was 'It's the economy, stupid'.
While a good economy cannot guarantee that the party in power remains in power (as evidenced by the election just passed), a bad economy guarantees that voters will kick it out. You can bet that the Democrats, now completely out of power for the first time in almost a half century, will be watching Alan Greenspan's every move with morbid fascination.
Robert B. Reich, Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, was Secretary of Labor in the first Clinton administration.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000