What we will see for the next several days are continued negotiations between the Republican Congress and the Democratic administration over what amounts to a pre-nuptial agreement. There is no reason to believe it will not be a successful negotiation, with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott the groom, President Clinton the bride. The Republican Party, after all, is the Daddy Party, the Democratic Party the Mommy Party. There will be a union, and there will be a honeymoon, and there is every reason to believe the marriage will be blessed with fruitful legislative offspring that will bear a resemblance to Mom’s side of the family, but which will act a lot more like Dad’s. This being Mr. Clinton’s second marriage -- the first ending in mutual incompatibility, and Mr. Lott’s first, we can almost think of this as the Clinton/Lott government, with Congress taking the initiative and the President keeping house.
After all national elections, there first must be a clear interpretation of the mandate given by the electorate. This time, it is fairly easy. President Clinton only asked the people to return him to office in order to protect them from the excesses of another Gingrich Congress, should Newt again attempt to take school lunches from the kids and Medicare from the old folks. Yes, he presented a laundry list of trivia, but not one voter in a million remembers it. Maureen Dowd said it best in her New York Times column of July 25, “President Pothole,” in which she imagines the President telling Hillary, “Honey, I shrunk the presidency.” Asked yesterday by David Brinkley if there is one thing he would like to do as President in his second term, the President said he would like to balance the budget in a way that would allow all our kids to go to college.
Trent Lott’s behavior since he counted the votes last week has been picture perfect. He knows and the Democrats know the voters gave the GOP control of the direction of government, with more power in the Senate, a bit less in the House. Nobody really believes the voters rejected Bob Dole because he promised a 15% tax cut. He was rejected because he never even tried to persuade the people that they did not need to be protected from the excesses of a GOP Congress. He scared them, especially the mommies. What direction will the government take? It essentially will be the same as that suggested in 1994 in Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, but with economic growth the highest priority. The horse before the cart. The White House is already saying it is willing to give the Republicans a 50% exclusion on capital gains taxation, with no indexing against inflation -- which was the Contract promise. In exchange, the President wants a $1500 tuition tax credit for the first two years of college. The Daddy/Mommy symmetry is precise: Capgains produces jobs, the tax credit trains the kids for them.
The Republicans are in a position to be much more ambitious than to settle for the leftover capgains provision of Newt’s contract. Their party promised a brand new tax system in its platform this year, as did Ross Perot’s Reform Party. A divided, but harmonious government is optimum for working out a new, simplified tax code. The Democrats know that while they dodged the bullet this time; they are probably only one election away from a Republican government of both executive and legislative branches -- for the first time since 1952. It is in their interest, and President Clinton’s, to play a direct role in this historic process. There also is no reason why the GOP has to accept the idea that capital gains not be indexed against inflation. Because Jack Kemp surfaced the idea of doing this by executive order in January, with Dole’s passive assent, the idea has circulated among the Republican governors as a good thing to do, even if it is done by a Democratic President. If this were done, the 105th Congress would open against an immediate backdrop of positive economic developments.
Can the Clinton/Lott government be this harmonious? As long as the Republicans do not mind Mr. Clinton getting credit for signing historic legislation into law, there really are no limits to what could be achieved in the next four years. This, because Mr. Clinton is the first Democratic President in history to face the two-term limitation of the 22nd Amendment. In his first four years, he always carried the burden of a Republican Party that did not want things to go so well that he would be re-elected. Last spring, after Dole resigned from the Senate to campaign full time, we reported that Kemp asked the President at a White House breakfast why he would not cut a budget deal with Trent Lott -- and Mr. Clinton said he and Lott could do one in a day, but for the fact that Republicans did not want the President to get credit, and that too many Democrats did not want the GOP Congress to get credit. Because Clinton cannot seek re-election, those Republican partisans who are at times willing to put party ahead of country are now free to put the country first, and Trent Lott is just the man to do it. There still will be those Beltway conservatives, such as ABC’s George Will, who argued yesterday that our system requires the two parties to fight. Most Americans, though, would not mind putting Bill Clinton on Mt. Rushmore if that’s what it took to end the gridlock of the last decade, to straighten out the economy in a way that helps cure our social pathologies.
A major driving force in this Clinton/Lott government will be the state governors, 60% of whom are Republicans representing 80% of the population. For most of our history, it was the governors who became our Presidents. More than at any time since the 1930s, governors will be making their weight felt in Washington these coming years. If in January the National Governors Association annual meeting in Washington produces a unified list of demands, they will have to get serious attention. The federal government cannot devolve problems to the states, as it did in the welfare bill, without also devolving power. The governors must demand that power.
Meanwhile, the stickiest part of the pre-nuptial agreement between the intended involves how to deal with their shady pasts. These are not teenagers, embarking upon a first go at union, but grownups who have been around the track. There are serious clouds over Speaker Gingrich as well as serious clouds over Billary. Newt may have to step aside temporarily as Speaker, as ethics charges against him are vetted, perhaps giving way to an outside caretaker. Trent Lott and Senator Al D’Amato are hinting at a let-bygones-be-bygones deal with the President and First Lady. Just as the Supreme Court follows the election returns, so does the Special Prosecutor. What Lott and D’Amato are trying to accomplish is tricky, to say the least, but it is certainly in the national interest.
The reason Trent Lott suddenly is the most powerful man in Washington, more powerful than his co-equal in the Oval Office, is that he doesn’t have any messes that he has made himself to clean up. He is fair, he is no-nonsense, he is common-sensical, he is the perfect Daddy in this situation. In 1984, I told him I thought he would be President some day. In 1992, when Ross Perot asked me for a list of potential running mates, Trent Lott topped the list. At lunch last week in Morristown, the day after the elections, a young waiter told me how excited he was to have voted the day before. He had come from Albania eight years earlier and had gotten his citizenship last year. He voted for Dole, he said, but he really wished he could have voted for a man named Trent Lott. Why?, I asked in amazement. The young man thought for a moment and then said: “Because he knows how to control a crowd.” I’m not kidding. The kid is right.