Mission Improbable

By the time you read this, the bipartisan fling may be over.
December 2006
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

Listening to Nancy Pelosi in the heady first few days following the November election, it was hard to avoid images of a "Contract with America" strategy at warp speed. Instead of focusing on the first hundred days of Democratic congressional control, she was talking about the first hundred hours.

It's true that she and President Bush both promised to be cooperative. But there's no doubt that Pelosi thought she held the high cards. Bush said he intended to "work with the new Congress in a bipartisan way." Pelosi said "Democrats are ready to lead, prepared to govern."

Will Bush and the congressional Democrats in fact learn to work together, perhaps grudgingly? Or are they on a course that can only produce two years of constant collision and ugly bickering as the parties prepare for the main event in 2008? And how would two years of high-level sparring in Washington affect the states?

One clue lies in the Pelosi game plan, a carefully researched but little-noticed 25-page campaign document, "A New Direction for America." It says the party will focus on "priorities for all Americans, not just the privileged few," a reprise of the recurring Democratic attack on Republicans.

The plan has six elements. There's a new strategy for Iraq, full implementation of the 9/11 Commission anti-terror recommendations, more money for the National Guard and 100 percent screening of all containers entering the nation's ports. There's an increase in the minimum wage. There's a package of aid for college students, including a deduction for college tuition and higher Pell grants.

Pelosi pledges lower gas prices through higher energy independence. She pledges to fix Medicare prescription-drug coverage and promote stem-cell research.

The document pledges to educate 100,000 new scientists, engineers, and mathematicians over the next four years, to put highly trained teachers into every K-12 math and science classroom, and to bring back "pay as you go" budget rules.

Bush's initial reaction to all this wasn't dismissive. "I believe on a lot of issues we can find common ground," he insisted the day after the election. He suggested that he might have an easier time devising a comprehensive immigration reform plan with the Democrats than with his fellow Republicans, many of whom insisted on border barriers as a precondition for dealing with anything else.

But Bush will also find himself politically alone at times, isolated by Pelosi in the House and Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Senate, not to mention a string of Democratic senators launching presidential campaigns, and congressional Republicans who have moved further to the right and away from any potential compromise that the Democratic leaders and Bush might be able to reach. To avoid a two-year downhill slide, the president might well want to work with congressional Democrats, but it could prove very hard for them to work with him. There's a big gap between the moderate new crop of Democrats in the House and their more liberal leadership, and the Democrats' minuscule Senate margin means that Vice President Cheney will never be able to leave Washington for long.

Despite his pledge to work with Pelosi, Bush could well find himself facing a string of Democratic bills designed to drive a deeper wedge between Republicans and the electorate. This might force him to dust off his veto pen, which he's used only once in six years. And for the states, that could prove the most important result of all. Should Washington politics degenerate into a battle over who can plant the brightest flag on the tallest symbolic mountain, the opportunities for state initiative will only grow. When the president exercised his veto power to maintain limits on stem-cell research, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger countered by pledging a $150 million state fund to support the research. Last month, Missouri voters approved a referendum protecting it.

The bottom line is that a return to gridlock in Washington--if it happens--would enhance the slide of important domestic policy innovation to the states--and perhaps improve the chances of governors with presidential aspirations who can point to results that trump the federal rhetoric.