The candidates' unspoken words: If Congress goes along...

Saturday, November 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Whether it is President Gore or President Bush, this is certain: Neither will be able to keep all the promises that have been issued _ even guaranteed _ in the White House marathon.

While a close campaign doesn't guarantee a close election _ Ronald Reagan won his first term by an unforeseen landslide _ this one, and the narrow edge either party can expect in the next Congress, especially the House, point to another four years of closely divided and contested government.

So for all his promises that he can mend gridlock with a new era of cooperation and bipartisanship, Bush would all but certainly be stalled if not stopped in trying to meet his pledge of a $1.3 trillion, 10-year tax cut.

Just as Gore would be sending his promised first bill for campaign finance reform to a Congress that has resisted overhauls for 25 years and will not suddenly shift to enacting one soon.

A Bush administration would have an edge should Republicans hold their control of Congress, but the margin of control is virtually certain to be so close as to enable Democrats to slow what they don't want, and block it outright in the Senate. There, for practical purposes, it takes 60 votes to enforce real control, because without that strength, the opposition can block measures by staging or threatening filibusters.

And that means compromises, concessions, and probably more than a few favors for the votes the president will need to deliver on his agenda.

Presidential campaigners always promise more than they can deliver, the candidates seldom reminding their rallies that almost everything they seek would be subject to the increasingly rigorous route through the House and Senate.

John F. Kennedy is said to have remarked as president that there were a lot of things he'd like to do if only the government would let him.

Jimmy Carter's central campaign promise was ``I will never lie to you,'' and while he could keep that one, he couldn't deliver on more specific pledges, such as his commitment to scrap the complex federal tax code he called a disgrace to the human race. ``You can count on it,'' he said, but it actually got more complicated because of the tax advantages written in to encourage conservation when oil and energy became a crisis.

President George Bush won in 1988 on a campaign slogan of ``Read my lips, no new taxes,'' and broke the promise, to his disadvantage in the 1992 election he lost to Clinton.

President Clinton promised a middle class tax cut in that campaign, but reversed field to concentrate on a deficit reduction plan that actually increased taxes instead, with Gore casting the tie breaking vote to get it through the deadlocked Senate.

Gov. Bush went one up on his father on tax pledges during the primary campaign, declaring that his vow was not just no new taxes, it was ``tax cuts, so help me God.''

Gore is now on the record with an absolute promise that as president ``I will not add to the number of people doing work for the federal government, not even one new position.'' That is his antidote to Bush's argument that the vice president's election would lead to a bigger, more intrusive federal government. That not-one-job pledge would be hard to keep, or police, for any president, especially when Congress tends to produce programs that do produce jobs.

And the no extra bureaucrats pledge would seem to collide with Gore's proposal to add prescription drug benefits to Medicare, a new and complex process somebody would have to manage.

Those are two samples of the campaign promises in which Bush and Gore have been saying what they'll do education, Medicare, Social Security, national defense, and dozens of lesser issues _ all of which they can only do with the approval of a Congress that has deadlocked or stalled for years on just such measures.

What they are saying is what they will propose to do, a hedge that goes unspoken.

Bush says that as president he would go to Congress to say that he wasn't coming there alone but was carrying a message from the American people. But a close election would deliver no compelling mandate, except that winning the White House, whatever the margin, is itself a mandate to do the job.

He likens his proposed tax cut to Reagan's, which he credits in part for the prospering economy.

Reagan campaigned for a one-third cut in income taxes, and got most of it, pushing it through a Democratic House. But Reagan did have a mandate _ a 10-point margin over President Carter, and an election in which Republicans took over the Senate and gained 30 seats in the House.

He was the last president with election coattails, and swing-district Democrats in Congress were wary of crossing him on his 1981 proposals.

No president since has been in that position. Not the last one, and all but certainly not the next one.