The Washington Times

How conservative is the Bush administration going to be? That’s a question on the minds of both liberals and conservatives these days.

The answer liberal Democrats are hoping for is: conservative enough to fail. The favorite sport of Washington Democrats since 1995 has been trying to portray Republicans as outside the political mainstream – extremist, given the opportunity. The Clinton White House became quite expert at this game, beginning with showdown over the government shutdowns of 1995-96. Republicans still feel the political pain the newly reinvigorated president inflicted on them.

In this respect, the campaigns being mounted against Attorney General-designee John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary-designee Gale Norton (as well as the truncated campaign against former Labor nominee Linda Chavez) are designed as exercises in public education as much as they are to undermine or perhaps defeat the nominees. The message is: See how scary these people are; that’s the Republican Party.

When it comes to administration policy, the idea will be to try to get the Republicans to bite off more than it can chew legislatively. Liberal Democrats want the administration to try to pass conservative measures and fail. That would leave Democrats in roughly the position in which Republicans found themselves in 1994. The collapse of the Clinton health care proposal allowed them to do a number of things: 1) portray the administration as extremist and its plan as dangerous; 2) use the political debacle of failure on Capitol Hill as evidence of the incompetence of the administration and its congressional allies; 3) take credit for saving the American people from a dangerous program.

That was a potent mix. Will Democrats be able to recreate it with the roles reversed?

The critical ingredient, to my mind, is failure. If you can engineer legislative defeat, the charge of extremism rushes in to fill the ensuing vacuum. If you can’t, then the legislation in question gets evaluated by its effects in the real world. In most cases, the real-world results of passed legislation tend to be less drastic than opponents predict. To take one example, liberal Democrats warned that babies would starve as a result of the end of the welfare entitlement. Had the reform failed to pass, they would have taken credit for saving those babies. But it passed – with no resulting increase in starving babies.

To take another example, Republicans promised that the Clinton tax increase of 1993 would cause imminent recession. But they couldn’t defeat it. And no recession was forthcoming. Had they been able to beat it, Republicans would have been in a position to claim credit for averting a recession their reckless opponents were bent on causing.

But it seems highly unlikely that the Bush administration is going to march off to political defeat with quite the enthusiasm the Clinton administration did over health care or congressional Republicans did in the government shutdown. One of the things that has been striking, as Mr. Bush has peopled the senior ranks of his administration, is the managerial competence on display – in the process itself as well as from most nominees. This will be essential, especially in such a difficult political environment.

Another characteristic of the emerging Bush administration is the degree to which it embodies the now-conservative mainstream of the party. Needless to say, this conservatism will not fully satisfy activists. But it ought to prevent the administration’s embrace of one of the easier solutions to the political problem described here: an embrace of the issue agenda Democrats want. The first Bush administration, facing a more hostile legislative environment – Democrats in firm control of both chambers – tried some of this, only to pay a steep political price later.

For all the talk of an evenly divided electorate (to which I have contributed, I admit), Congress is both more conservative and more Republican now that it was from 1989 to 1993. Passing the legislation of a mainstream conservative administration will be easier now than it was then. That’s not to say it will be easy; but Bush II need not look for the latter-day equivalent of the 1990 budget deal, with the tax increases Democrats were so keen on, in order to make progress. In the current environment, Republicans can expect to draw Democratic support in a number of policy areas, including tax cuts.

There are two ways to avoid being conservative enough to fail. One is not to be conservative; the other is not to fail. So far, it looks like the administration-to-be is working the latter part of the problem.