The Long View: Perverse Predictions

On the other hand, here are some predictions John got eerily right. John wrote this post at the beginning of W's presidency, but he could have just as easily been describing President Obama.

Perverse Predictions: You can read about the future here; just try to look surprised when it happens.
The notorious journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, had this pithy advice just after the Murphy's Law Election: "Get familiar with Cannibalism." Mr. Thompson's views were predictably extreme, especially the part about roving "gangs of organized Perverts." Nonetheless, his analysis does reflect a widespread concern about the ability of the new president and congress to function.
These worries preceded the election. David E. Sanger's essay, "Who Needs the Next Four Years?" (The New York Times, November 5), argued that the political process has been encouraging the American people to live in fantasy land. According to Mr. Sanger, "Even the optimist-in-chief, Bill Clinton, has remarked to his staff about the huge gulf between what the candidates have been talking about (prescription drugs, tax cuts, secure retirement) and the kind of issues consuming him in his last days in office (terror attacks, a Middle East blowup, Balkan hatreds)." In other words, it's nice if the president cares about primary school education, but it has little to do with his job.
Columnist Peggy Noonan had this to say about what that job will be in the next four years: "Half the foreign and defense policy establishment fears, legitimately, that the Big Terrible Thing is coming, whether in India-Pakistan, or in Asia or in lower Manhattan."
Unfortunately, according to David Brooks (The Weekly Standard, November 20), "[t]his country is tied." He points out that not only was the presidential race essentially a draw, settled by luck, but the Senate and the House are balanced. (The Senate perfectly so, the House with a trivial Republican majority.) This happened because of the studied refusal by both sides to appeal to principle. Instead, the campaign was pitched to consumers, as represented by an entrenched network of special interests: "Watching the two candidates speak about their rival plans was like watching an ad war between cellular phone rate plans."
While some see this stand-off as a move to the center by both sides, Mr. Brooks says the reality is rancorous stagnation. "Indeed, the two great armies have now developed a symbiotic mutual-bogeyman relationship." Even worse, terms like "coup d'etat" have spread from the world of conspiracy theorists to mainstream political discourse. In such an atmosphere, it is hard to see how ordinary government is possible, much less long-term thinking.
Nonetheless, what is hard in theory may be easy in practice. The title of a column by Richard W. Stevenson sums up this school of thought: "The Politics of Surplus Cut Across Partisanship" (The New York Times, November 19). While acknowledging that bipartisan agreement on issues such as Social Security reform is very unlikely in the new congress, he suggests that the same will not be true of fiscal policy. Gridlock in an era of surplus works differently from gridlock in an era of deficits. During the last legislative session, the president and congress overcame their differences by throwing money at them. This practice ate up a third of the then-projected $2.2 trillion surplus for the next ten years, but the projection for the surplus has meanwhile been substantially raised again, leaving yet more room for maneuver.
In this scenario, even an economic downturn becomes good news. Those who are avid for tax cuts will be able to have them, since the economy will need stimulus and the Federal Reserve will no longer be raising interest rates. Increases in defense spending will not be a problem. Neither, for that matter, will expenditures for things like transportation infrastructure. Indeed, the record of the last congress suggests that the real impediment to the reconstruction of the air-transportation system is no longer money, but the lead-time for new projects.
The opposite extreme from the get-used-to-cannibalism school is the notion that everything will be just fine, because Bill Clinton will remain in office, at least in spirit. John F. Harris summed up what may be the emerging consensus in an article entitled "Next President May Find Resiliency" (Washington Post, November 24).
The idea is that President Clinton also faced what in effect was a deadlocked congress, but showed how to navigate the situation successfully. The president is the national tie-breaker, after all, and there is a buffet of backed-up legislation that would enhance his popularity. Certainly the poll-tested issues that took up so much time during the election, such as a "patients' bill of rights" for HMOs, lend themselves to compromises that would leave everyone looking good.
Suppose the mood on Capital Hill remains rancorous. The president still has quite a bit of autonomous authority. He can set the national agenda through speeches, executive orders and vetoes. Even if congress does not go along, he can often establish the criteria by which a congress will be judged.
While there is something to be said for this argument, we must remember that President Clinton maintained his popularity at very high levels by conducting what the Weekly Standard called a "doll house" presidency. When his administration had to abandon major new programs after losing congress in 1994, he turned to small, largely symbolic initiatives. While the presidential endorsement of nutrition labels on juice cans was perhaps an extreme example, it is true that President Clinton spent much of his time on matters that were more popular than important. Even these he often promoted through a strategy of "triangulation": part of both parties in congress were portrayed as extremists, while only he stood at the sensible center.
I suggest that the incoming president will not need these tawdry devices. The administration will be characterized by issues with a foreign affairs component, the area where the president's own power is greatest. The balance in congress, far from hampering him, is more likely to free him.
This column originally appeared in the January, 2001, issue of Business Travel Executive. Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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