Richard Reeves

This Is the Republicans' Big Chance

WASHINGTON -- It looked as if someone took the "bi" out of bipartisanship last Thursday as every single one of the 220 Republicans in the House of Representatives marched in lockstep to vote for President Bush's tax-cut plan. If the 10 Democrats who joined them are what amounts to bipartisanship these days, by my count the House is less than 2 percent "bi."

So much for the new respectful bipartisanship promised by the new president, who was out campaigning against Democrats when the vote was taken, which is EXACTLY what Bill Clinton did when he was hustling up a little "bi." Meanwhile, back in the White House, the boys were trying to dismantle Clinton's new workplace safety regulations concerned with such things as crippling repetitive motion, which we now know can destroy humans as surely as asbestos or toxic waste.

Most important perhaps was the president's dismissal of the idea that it might be in the national interest of the United States -- and of South Korea, too -- to stop the North Koreans from trying to make nuclear missiles. Possibly the most important decision Bush has made so far is to tell both his secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, that he is not interested in continuing the talks President Clinton began with the North Koreans about paying them off in some way to stop trying to build (and sell) long-range nuclear missiles.

A believer in vast right-wing conspiracy theories might jump to the conclusion that our new leader prefers the threat of North Korean missiles to having no plausible reason to continue touting a national missile defense for the 21st century. After all, the missile shield Bush has been pushing is designed to protect us all from North Korean rogue-state tin-can missiles. No missiles, no shields.

You can feel a hardening of lines in Washington. Deadlock ahead -- again. The new president is looking more and more like a very ordinary conservative Republican. He is not unlikable, but he is not imaginative either -- and, unfortunately, not the flexible, listening man he has claimed to be.

But, bad grammar aside, he is not stupid, and neither are the Republican lock-steppers on the Hill. They are seizing the moment, recognizing that they were extremely lucky to maintain control of both houses of Congress and of the White House in one of the wackiest elections in history. This could be a short-lived peak of Republican power. If not now, when? If not us, who?

It may not get better than this for the Republicans. The people beyond the Beltway are still inclined to give the new president a chance, no matter how he got there. But tides, fast and slow, are running against the party in power. Without being too morbid about it, The New York Times this week became the first of the journalistic biggies to write at length about what Washington is actually talking about: Strom Thurmond's health. The South Carolina Republican, 46 years in the Senate, is 98 years old and obviously failing. The governor of his state, Jim Hodges, who will appoint a new senator if Thurmond quits (unlikely) or dies, is a Democrat. If he appoints a fellow Democrat to the equally divided Senate, that could be the end of the Republican moment.

The slower tide that worries Republicans is reflected in the new census figures indicating rapid growth of the American Hispanic population, which has just become the nation's largest minority, greater in number than black America. Most Hispanics vote Democratic, though not as solidly as blacks do, and they are going to be a much larger part of the population in years to come. The political complexion of the United States is changing.

So the Republicans are moving fast, trying to put as much of their agenda into law as fast as they can. They are beginning with a tax cut that will outlive their current majority. Their real goal is not to stimulate the economy, which would be nice, but to cut back the size and power of government by cutting off the oxygen of tax revenues. What they hope for is to lock in 10 years of tax-cutting with only a couple of weeks of fast work -- work they'll call bipartisan.

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