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Compromise First, Then Crush Them

Bush will need accomplishments in his first two years. Then he can get aggressive

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 2001 • By MIKE MURPHY
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GEORGE W. BUSH has gotten off to a strong start, with a formidable cabinet and a firm idea of what he wants to do as president. But conservatives thirsty for change must remember that to use political power, we must maintain that power. Idealists on the right need to be hard-headed and realistic.

The inconvenient truth is that while President-elect Bush won the election, Republicans lost the campaign. We got fewer votes, lost Senate incumbents, and failed to carry important swing states. The Democrats know this, and like sleeping crocodiles they lie in wait for the 2002 elections. Whether Republicans enjoy a decade of conservative power -- or a heady but brief two years of presidential rule with a congressional majority -- will depend on how well the Bush administration navigates the next year.

The new president needs a two-year plan, followed by a six-year plan. The first two years he should build popularity and political power by piling up victories and "getting things done." The following six years he should exploit that power.

Bush successes and accomplishments are thus the order of the day. That means compromise, a word we conservatives despise because we too often confuse it with appeasement. Bush should never appease, but he should remember the lesson of Bill Clinton: A president will always get credit for anything that gets done in Washington. Who got credit for balancing the budget, reforming welfare, and expanding the economy? Not the Republican Congress.

Bush should savor the irony and steal this handy trick from our outgoing political thief-in-chief by making sure a few things go right in Washington. He can then amass great credit and apply the power that popularity will bring to hold Congress, win reelection, gain more power, and dictate policies more to his liking.

The looming iceberg is the 2002 midterm elections. They are fraught with peril: a close House, vital governorships, and the Senate are all up for grabs. The census, if counted honestly and not "improved" by Democratic sample-cooking, will yield a fair redistricting which will be helpful to the GOP, but not enough. Republicans will need a popular president to win. Four early and big Bush victories will get us there.

First, a muscular tax cut sold as a method to keep the economy from falling into recession. Tax cuts are most popular when people feel economic pressure. Voters know tax cuts create growth and jobs. The Bush administration is sounding a perfect note on this. A tax cut for the sake of the economy is a winner. The Democrats have been reduced to hapless bickering over the size of the Bush tax cut. This gives Bush a wonderful opportunity to outwit them. He should propose a smaller "compromise" tax cut, with a strongly accelerated implementation. Say $ 900 billion, instead of $ 1.3 trillion, but put in place more quickly. Bush should take credit for compromising and bank the political win from his victorious tax cut.

Then he should brutally bid up the ante next year, by proposing a second major tax cut, before the midterm elections. The administration could ride the success of the first tax cut and sell a further tax cut as more good medicine for the economy. In the end, the president-elect can deliver a bigger total tax cut while riding his popular signature issue into the 2002 elections.

George W. Bush's second great issue is education reform, the issue he speaks most fervently about. Since our federal system allows a president little power to do much about elementary and secondary education, Bush's best weapon is the bully pulpit. Summits, visits to America's best and worst public schools, and a partnership with reformist governors are the best way to build up support for serious education reform. An education crusade led by the obviously sincere Bush is another political winner.

Third, Bush should demand, and then sign, a ban on partial-birth abortions -- the pro-life issue with a national super-majority of public support behind it. The Democrats will lurch left in opposition to appease their yelping interest groups, a useful mistake for the GOP to exploit in 2002.

The fourth victory? Campaign finance reform. Bush should embrace a revised version of McCain-Feingold-Cochran, and call the Democrats' cynical bluff. The usefulness of a big early victory for a new president cannot be overestimated, and the alternative of an unpopular fight with a McCain/Democratic coalition will be a tragic and unnecessary waste of political capital.