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Era of Confrontation, Not Kind Nor Gentle, Could Mark Bush Term

<i> Tom Bethell is the Washington editor of the American Spectator</i>

Eight years ago, conservatives were jubilant when they won what they believed to be a great victory with Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter and the unexpected GOP capture of the U.S. Senate. But as the election returns came in Tuesday night at a “Go for the Gold Victory Celebration” given by Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail expert, the crowd seemed if anything subdued, despite Vice President George Bush’s impressive margin of victory.

The results seemed almost foreordained and nothing much to cheer about: The Republicans would retain the White House while the Democrats’ grip on both houses of Congress seemed more secure than ever. No doubt, therefore, conservative victories would be as difficult to achieve under Bush as they have been under Reagan. In 1980 there was enthusiastic talk of party “realignment.” That realignment never occurred, and the topic has been dropped.

There were some isolated expressions of satisfaction. Conservative Caucus chairman Howard Phillips thought that Bush would deliver more to conservatives than Reagan ever did. Reagan “could get away with pure ceremony,” he said. Bush “must have substance.”

Both Viguerie and Phillips looked forward to the early onset of confrontation. “I hope the Democrats will challenge Bush quickly,” Viguerie said. “A honeymoon means deals and compromises.”

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President-elect Bush performed well at Wednesday’s press conference in Houston. In the three months since the Republican convention in New Orleans, Bush has grown in stature impressively.

Still, it is not easy to see how Bush will be able to implement his promises of “healing” and his vision of a “gentler, kinder nation.” His claim Wednesday that “the way to heal is to have meetings” was among the least persuasive comments of Campaign ’88. The problem is that the divisions that now split the nation are real and deep. They are not the kind of disagreements that arise out of misunderstanding or that can be papered over by committees or displays of good will. How is the tremendously divisive issue of abortion to be resolved to the satisfaction of all? How are U.S. military defenses to be deployed in a “healing” fashion, given the liberal hostility to the idea that the United States should be defended at all?

It’s worth noting that the one idea not only embraced but successfully implemented by Reagan--supply-side economics--was a compromise in its essence, and it worked surprisingly well. The supply-siders said that lower tax rates would yield higher tax revenues; we now have those rates, and revenues flowing to Washington have almost doubled in the Reagan years. Thus individual incentives were restored to economic policy (a conservative goal), and the big spenders have more of the taxpayers’ money to hand out in Washington (a liberal goal).

It is unlikely, however, that further such compromises will be possible in the economic realm. (Bush is no doubt right that a capital-gains tax-rate reduction will once again raise some new revenue, but not much.) The problem, and the looming conflict, arises because the liberals demand that an ever-increasing share of the national income be placed at the disposal of Congress, and there is no way in which this revenue hunger can be satisfied if Bush sticks to his promise not to raise taxes. If he yields to “inside-the-Beltway” pressure and breaks this promise, he will promptly lose the core of his support.

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All the indications are, then, that Viguerie and Phillips will get their wish and that we will soon find ourselves in an era of confrontation--one unlikely to be either kind or gentle. The same analysis applies to Bush’s prospective Supreme Court nominees. It is hard to think of a healing judicial nominee, given the decisions that lie ahead for the court.

The period of conflict confronting the Bush Administration is likely to make itself felt within the Democratic Party as well.

If the recent example of the British Labor Party is any guide, the left will be reluctant to yield the gains that it has made within the Democratic Party since 1972, however much those gains make it difficult for the presidential candidate to be elected. It is not going to be easy for the party to change the rules so that the nomination goes to a more moderate, centrist candidate like Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey or Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia.

Jesse Jackson is now in a position to make the claim, with some justice, that he loyally yielded to this centrist impulse in 1988, giving the party the united convention and the vice presidential nominee it preferred, but the strategy failed. “You can’t win without me,” he can now say.

Jackson and his sympathizers within the party will only be reinforced by the refrain, endlessly repeated in recent weeks, that Bush waged a “negative campaign” and so, by implication, won unfairly. This merely obscures the truth that Michael Dukakis lost because of his own liberalism, not because of Bush’s tactics. If Democrats believe that Republican strategy rather than liberal ideology was decisive, they are unlikely to be deterred from nominating another liberal in 1992--perhaps Jackson himself.


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