Washington Thanks to some muscular leadership and a readiness to discard congressional norms, Republicans have put in place the major pieces they think essential to re-elect President Bush next year.
Final congressional approval of the Medicare prescription drug bill last week is the cherry atop the sundae the White House wanted from this session of Congress. The postponement until next year of the stymied energy bill cannot wipe the grins off the faces of the president's political lieutenants.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff ticks off the many reasons for satisfaction. Back in May, Congress added another round of tax cuts to those it passed in 2001 and 2002. The heady mix of fiscal stimulus, including increased defense and domestic spending, has had its desired effect, and the once-stagnant economy shows clear signs of soaring into the election year.
The "compassionate conservative" president can now go to the country bragging that he has moved the federal government more aggressively than ever into two areas where the public supports additional effort -- education, with the No Child Left Behind Act passed by the last Congress, and now the largest expansion in history of the popular health care program for retirees.
School kids, teachers and seniors have been cherished symbols in Democratic campaigns ever since FDR, but Republicans now have a claim on them.
Meantime, McInturff notes, the Republican base is thrilled that Congress has passed and Bush has signed a ban on late-term "partial-birth" abortions. With the recently staged Republican Senate talkathon to protest Democratic filibusters against several of Bush's conservative judicial appointments, the social issue debate is teed up for 2004.
McInturff concludes: "We've got a president who is well-liked personally and credible as a leader. By next summer, we ought to have reasonable stability in Iraq. So what's the reason to change?"
Democrats insist that these Republican "achievements" are either empty gestures or policies that will rebound against the GOP. The tax cuts are tilted to the wealthy, they say, and have contributed to record deficits. No Child Left Behind is underfunded and the promise of prescription drugs is a snare for the elderly, who will find that Medicare is being undermined by "reforms" in the bill. And the social issues Republicans have put on the agenda will mobilize core Democrats as well as Republicans, they say.
Nonetheless, there is a ring of truth to what McInturff says about the coming campaign: "If this Medicare bill had failed, the Democrats' ads would say, 'President Bush promised in the last campaign to provide a Medicare drug benefit, but even with Republicans in control of the White House, the Senate and the House, they failed to deliver. Vote Democratic for prescription drugs."'
"What do they say now?" he asked, and provided his own scornful answer: "They say, 'It's not big enough or soon enough -- and by the way, the AARP is wrong to endorse it.' Which message would you rather face?"
The answer is obvious. What is less apparent is how close the Republicans came to losing the victories of which they brag -- and what it took to deliver.
Last spring, House and Senate Republicans were at each other's throats about the size and timing of the tax bill. Budget hawks in the Senate were holding firm against the big package the House wanted. It took personal intervention by Vice President Cheney and a bit of fiscal sleight-of-hand -- a purely nominal agreement to end some cuts next year, which allowed the big reductions sought by the House to fit under the $350 billion cap set by the Senate. That fictional concession -- almost certain to be wiped out when the tax cuts are extended next year -- bought off a couple Republican senators and allowed Cheney to cast the tie-breaking vote that sent it through the Senate, 51-50.
Even more extraordinary measures were needed to get the Medicare bill through the House. By long tradition, House roll calls record the chamber's verdict within 15 or 20 minutes. But Republicans now use that time simply to determine how many additional votes they must produce.
When the normal time expired in the predawn hours of Nov. 22, the Medicare bill apparently had been defeated. But 2 hours and 51 minutes after the voting began, two Republicans were induced to switch -- and the measure passed.
In bending the rules and fudging reality, Republicans showed just how much they value these victories. But they also invited retaliation if and when the Democrats come back to power again.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.