Washington The ambassador's attention wilted a few questions into a discussion of the presidential race. "For my country it doesn't matter much whether Bush or Gore wins. The big question for us is who controls the House. Trade, military aid and other parts of foreign policy vital to us would look very different under Richard Gephardt than under Dennis Hastert."
The intense scrutiny the rest of the world focuses on American presidential races has broadened this year to cover the battle for control of the House and Senate. The Clinton years established conclusively that no president is an island: Who rules Capitol Hill affects Toulon and Timbuktu as well as Topeka and Tallahassee.
The ambassador's analysis makes a less obvious but equally important point: The positions that Republican and Democratic presidential candidates stake out in their campaigns resemble each other more than they resemble the positions of their own party's leaders in Congress. Almost uniformly true on foreign affairs, this proposition is valid for most domestic issues as well.
This has something to do with the personalities and priorities of Al Gore and George W. Bush and their campaign strategists, who have concentrated on blurring significant differences (on abortion, gun control, nuclear strategy, prescription drugs for seniors et al.) that might alienate undecided voters. Each nominee has fought free of identification with his party's Capitol Hill gang.
In the blurring contest, Bush has been masterful. Gore has been merely adequate, seeming to be acting out of fear rather than from instinct as Bush does. Gore has paid the price in opinion polls.
But the clustering effect that constant polling and focus groups create in campaigning now continues into Executive Branch governance as well. Clinton-Gore on NAFTA, strategic partnership with China and national missile defense erased or pre-empted meaningful Republican-Democratic differences on the national level. You have to look into the House and Senate to find rebel or unorthodox opinion on most big issues today.
A President Gore's biggest battles on military aid to Colombia, ever sweeter trade with China or U.S. intervention abroad would probably be with Gephardt and Democratic leaders in the House. A President Bush's most constant challenge in foreign policy would probably come from know-nothings in the Senate Republican leadership, not from Saddam Hussein.
Bipartisanship may be a less urgent problem for the next president than establishing some workable form of unipartisanship. The Republican Executive Branchers think more like their Democratic counterparts than like many congressmen of their own party.
That is, Colin Powell has more in common with Richard Holbrooke than he does with Jesse Helms. (This may not be true for Dick Cheney, the rare Bush team member with congressional experience.) Each prospective secretary of state understands and expresses the limits of U.S. power and the need to work with other nations in terms alien to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In Washington, where you stand has always depended on where you sit. But the disappearance of the Cold War's hard and fast lines of engagement abroad makes Congress less attentive and less receptive to strategic arguments and party discipline. A strong committee chair can conduct a foreign policy of his or her own if he or she has authorizing or appropriating power.
The prospect that the Democrats are within striking distance of regaining control of the House has embassies here reporting on how their nations would fare with changes in committee assignments. And the tight House race has not escaped the attention of William Jefferson Clinton, who gave a rafter-rattling closed-door presentation to House Democrats last week in which he promised to confront the Republicans, primarily on education, to help Democrats win back the House.
Clinton is being beseeched by House candidates to appear in their districts. The president will be active, and a polarizing factor, in the campaign's final days, despite the Gore camp's reticence on a stump role for Clinton. The president painted that role in bright colors to the party group he addressed on Oct. 19.
House-wise, some Democrats also draw hope from the spotty but surprising strength Ralph Nader is showing in the presidential race. In states where Nader figures to hurt Gore's chances, he is likely to increase turnout on the left significantly.
"You have to add the Nader and Gore votes in the House and Senate races," says one senior Democrat who thinks winning back the House is his party's most urgent objective. It is an effort that the whole world is watching in this campaign.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.