Through the end of September, Beltway Democrats were moving toward the edge of panic. George Bush seemed invincible. In his first several months, except for John Tower, he'd won one contest after another, on the minimum wage bill, on a no-new-taxes budget, on a stunning capgains vote. Newt Gingrich was up, Jim Wright and Tony Coelho down. The Russians were practically applying for statehood and the stock market and the President's popularity were reaching new peaks. What's a Democratic Party to do in such circumstances but cringe?
Then came Panama and Noriega, a defeat on the flag bill, a tricky veto on abortion, and a 10-10 vote in Senate Finance that opened up a shot at defeating capgains on procedural grounds. When the Senate Republicans blinked on Friday the 13th, capgains indeed seemed in deep do-do. There were some brave mumblings out of the White House last week about fighting it out on capgains, and the market staged a comeback. But over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell put on his gorilla suit, pounded his hairy chest, and announced that there would be no capgains legislation this year! The Beltway Democrats had talked themselves into the idea that they "had finally gotten their act together," which was the buzz on the Sunday talk shows and all over Capitol Hill Monday morning: The Senate Democrats who want to cut capgains would not abandon Mitchell on this Big Test of his Leadership. And the Real George Bush, the pre-New Orleans lapdog-wimp Bush, was suddenly running for his security blanket. Or so it was said.
This calculus was the backdrop to the free-fall on Wall Street yesterday morning, which ended abruptly when the White House announced that the President would fight for capgains and append it to the continuing resolution today, which would mean a showdown at the OK Corral between George Bush and George Mitchell. The signal is that the President may be willing to shut down the government in order to get a Senate vote on capgains. If this doesn't mean business, nothing does. As I write this, the decision has not yet been made by the Senate Leadership on whether to comply with this administration request, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole uncertain about this inside strategy and the blood it will spill on the Senate floor. The stakes are even higher now.
The undecided Democrats are pleading with the administration not to fight, to put the whole shebang off until next year, when they can wrap together capgains, IRAs, minimum wage, blah, blah, in the "Deal of the Century," including new taxes. "Don't offend George Mitchell by pushing capital gains," is the refrain.
My sense is that the President has a fairly clear picture of what's going on. Senators Bob Packwood and Pete Domenici are girding for combat while Dole remains hesitant. The White House is ready to cut a deal on the minimum wage, to give Mitchell something for his bravado, which I think is a good thing to do down the line. But the President, I think, is erring in turning up the heat a degree at a time. This would be a very tough thing to do, incrementally. At this point, the incremental approach is much too bloody. It would be easier if mild-mannered Clark Kent put on his cape and went to the nation in a televised "enough is enough" speech, relating his patience to date with the Democratic Congress, his willingness to bend, and then laying out the stakes to the economy and to his responsibilities as President if this obstructionism continues. Some wise men around him are beginning to think along these lines, getting capgains and driving a stake through the lapdog-wimp business. It would also make it a lot easier for Dole and his future relations with the Democrats if the President took on this burden. If there's blood to be spilled on the Senate floor, with the government closing down, the people should know why, in any case.