BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : DECEMBER 25, 2000 ISSUE
GOVERNMENT

With Allies Like These, Who Needs Democrats?


To heal a divided nation, George W. Bush is vowing to reach out to Democrats. But the Dems might not be his biggest problem. Even as the next President plans conciliatory gestures toward his foes, he's having to fend off jabs from his own right wing. Worried that the Texas governor's bipartisan overtures could come at the expense of their conservative agenda, hard-liners are drawing a line in the sand. Give us what we've been waiting for, seems to be the operative message.

REAL HURDLE. Bush isn't overly concerned about the noises coming from conservative advocacy groups. A more serious problem will be handling congressional firebrands, led by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who could irreparably harm Bush's chances to succeed. By pushing a divisive, hard-right agenda, DeLay could ''make it extremely difficult to bring people together, despite all this happy talk about bipartisanship,'' frets a Bush adviser.

Conservatives are counting on DeLay to be the point man for their activist agenda. On the wish list: big supply-side tax cuts, with special breaks for stay-at-home Moms and religious charities, aggressive action to curb abortion and gay rights, sanctions on nations that persecute religious minorities, and funding for a new anti-missile system.

Given his professed goal of governing across party lines--and to scoring some early victories--those are hardly Bush's first priorities. But standing up to the likes of a DeLay will be a tall order for a governor with precious little experience in the take-no-prisoners warfare of Washington. Nor does it help his standing with the conservative wing that his father, former President George Bush, had strained relations with the right. Now, some Bushophobes are muttering that Bush junior, like his dad, is too willing to compromise. ''We're not in favor of being bipartisan; that would be terrible,'' says Religious Right warrior Phyllis Schlafly. And former GOP Presidential candidate Gary Bauer blasts the ''Nervous Nellies'' within the Bush camp who shrink at a bold conservative agenda. ''It would be silly [of Bush] to moderate his positions,'' argues Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families. ''The problem with my party is we trim our sails long before we have to.''

True believers are also upset over the prospect that Bush may name too many moderates to key Administration posts. Among the early targets of conservative e-mail campaigns: Chief-of-Staff-designate Andrew H. Card Jr. and rumored Cabinet secretaries Colin L. Powell and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. Both are seen as soft on abortion. Bush advisers expect the right to target ''one or two specific nominees'' for hazing during Senate confirmation. How does the Bush team plan to deal with right-wing resistance? In the end, ''we'll run right over them,'' vows a Bush strategist.

Maybe. But first Bush will throw a bone to the Right by reserving several key jobs for conservatives. Among the most likely: a pro-life, law-and-order Attorney General, a prominent abortion foe such as former Virginia health secretary Kay Cole James at the Health & Human Services Dept., and an enemy of affirmative action as head of the Justice Dept.'s civil-rights division.

Meanwhile, he is drawing up a bipartisan agenda for his first Hundred Days that he hopes will appeal both to the right and the center. Likely proposals include marriage-penalty and inheritance-tax relief, education reforms, an HMO patients' bill of rights, and a prescription drug benefit for seniors. Former GOP House staffer Michael G. Franc, now at the Heritage Foundation, calls these bite-sized proposals ''a thousand points of legislative light.''

While some on the Right want far more than that, most conservatives seem willing to cut Bush some slack.

''A lot of people have to realize that this isn't 1980, and Bush isn't [Ronald] Reagan,'' says ex-Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, a GOP strategist and close friend. ''With a divided nation, he has to govern differently.''

The wild card in all this will be DeLay, who argues that the GOP's narrow ''sweep'' of the 2000 election is a green light for activism. ''The conservative base has been waiting for a long time,'' says Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann. ''This is time to go full-speed ahead with their agenda.'' A top DeLay aide says Bush won't let them down. ''Bipartisanship doesn't necessitate capitulation,'' says DeLay spokesman Jonathan M. Baron.

Still, Bush strategists hope to convince DeLay to air grievances in private. ''You've got to give him a chance to be a team player,'' says a Bush adviser. ''The first time he [messes with] you, then you've got to whack him.'' Democrats relish the thought of a Bush-DeLay showdown. ''Tom DeLay will insist on 'my way or no way,''' says Representative Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

Republicans say that, in the end, DeLay won't give the Democrats the satisfaction of GOP infighting. ''Conservatives are going to be pragmatic,'' says Jeffrey A. Eisenach, president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation. In the first Bush Administration, ''pragmatism'' was an epithet in conservative circles. In Bush II, however, it offers a weakened President-to-be the possibility of bipartisan success.

By Richard S. Dunham, with Lorraine Woellert and Amy Borrus in Washington D.C.

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