On a Sunday morning on which the future leaders of both the United States and Israel were in doubt, more than 100 people came to Belltown to hear a discussion of whether the next president will be able to lead the nation.
With an almost mystical prescience, the Northwest chapter of the American Jewish Committee had begun organizing the panel discussion a month before the Dec. 10 meeting, hosted by board member Shirley Bridge. But the topic took on an immediacy that no one could have imagined even a week earlier, with the U.S. Supreme Court poised to hear arguments that decided the election and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announcing his resignation barely a day beforehand.
Senator-elect Maria Cantwell said she did not consider it a coincidence that the Mid-East conflict should reach a critical stage when our own political future is unsettled. She said dislocations on the world stage are almost inevitable when Americaâ€™s domestic politics are uncertain. The stronger the United States appears, she added, the better its position to play a constructive role in world affairs.
“We are headed for challenging times in that situation,” Cantwell said, regarding the chances for refocusing the players in the Mideast on resolving their conflicts. “It becomes incumbent on the leadership in the House and the Senate to come together with the President and form a united front on this issue.”
Cantwell was one of five panelists brought together for the forum. Other participants included veteran congressman Jim McDermott and University of Washington professor Walter Williams on the Democratic side. On the Republican end of the spectrum were King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and former Rep. John Miller, who served four terms in the other Washington in the 1980s and â€™90s. All five agreed that the United States would continue to be a strong supporter of Israel, regardless of how the power balance is settled or who is sworn in as President on Jan. 20. But the were split on what role the United States could or even should attempt to play in bringing the opposing sides together in the coming months or years.
In commenting on the current unrest in the Mideast, McDermott quoted retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once said that “there is no easy answer to this, and what we need is a â€˜Great Complexifier.â€™” He said that before the end of the Cold War, virtually all foreign policy questions could be viewed through the lens of how the Soviets would react. Without the presence of an overarching enemy, McDermott said, the calculations have become immensely more complicated and nuanced, and the right role for America far more uncertain. On the broader question, McDermott said that the real impact of the presidency was not going to come from the Oval Office but from the 1,000 or so appointments the president will make to fill the executive branch bureaucracy.
“Heâ€™s got a thousand people out there doing what somebody â€” I donâ€™t know if it will be George Bush â€” but what somebody wants them to,” McDermott said. He also predicted deadlock in the Congress because “the House is in the hands of people who donâ€™t like government.” Most of the panelists assumed that George W. Bush would be the ultimate winner of the contest, which had taken yet one more sharp turn toward uncertainty the day before, when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount of disputed ballots. Predictably the two sides split along party lines on the “Question of the Day”: whether he (or Gore) could end up being an effective leader.
Calling himself an “unreconstructed liberal” and saying he “was not enamored with either candidate,” Prof. Williams questioned whether either of the two contenders for the presidency has the type of personality suited to leadership.
“I donâ€™t see either George Bush or Al Gore, under normal circumstances, being an effective president,” Williams said. “I donâ€™t see either of them as a strong leader.” Williams said that while Gore is “high on the intelligence scale,” he appears prone to get mired in details, much as Jimmy Carter did, and he saw George W. Bush as destined to be “the least qualified president since Warren G. Harding.”
“This doesnâ€™t mean that he wonâ€™t be a good president, but it does mean that his handlers will have” a tremendous amount of influence, Williams said, adding that the final judgment on a Bush presidency would depend on the quality of the people surrounding him. He predicted that the next two years in Washington are “going to be a bloodbath, because itâ€™s been a bloodbath for several years.” He said Majority Whip Tom DeLay “is there to serve a conservative right-wing agenda,” while the Democrats are “going to be furious from day one,” making compromise difficult if not impossible.
Norm Maleng, who recalled his days as an aide to Washingtonâ€™s legendary Sen. Warren Magnusen, said he thought Bush was the type of man that “Maggie” could have worked with. Citing the bi-partisanship that Magnusen brought to his work on foreign policy, Maleng said Bushâ€™s stated willingness to reach across party lines would give him a good chance to lead effectively over the next four years.
Miller, who cautioned that he had been out of the Beltway loop “coaching my sonâ€™s Little League” for the last eight years, said either man would face stiff challenges in becoming an effective leader, but not because of the closeness of the race.
“The president may not be able to govern,” he said, “but it wonâ€™t be because of the excruciatingly close margin.” To be effective, said Miller, any president will need to unite his own party members, set priorities for the nationâ€™s agenda, reach across the aisle and communicate with the American people.