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A President Kerry couldn't change Washington

The Democratic presidential race might yet take another unexpected turn. But let's assume John Kerry, the Democrat who has captured the "electability" title, goes all the way and defeats President George W. Bush in November. It would be a moment of enormous gratification for Democrats consumed with the idea of payback for the 2000 election. But would it change things in Washington all that much?

Kerry's campaign promises amount to nothing less than the wholesale rollback of Bush's policies at home and abroad. The lanky patrician from Massachusetts has promised, as most presidential candidates do, far more than he could ever deliver. Send him to the Oval Office, he tells voters, and he will break the grip of special interests on Washington, restore fiscal discipline and repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers. He will repair the damage Bush's "arrogant and reckless" foreign policy has done to U.S. relations with its allies and seek multilateral solutions to threats to the nation's security. He will protect the environment from oil companies and embrace the Kyoto protocols on global warming. He will nominate only federal judges who support abortion rights. He has pledged massive new investments in education and health care and vows to secure the future of Social Security. And on and on.

If you go online (, you will see that he has left no issue behind. He has a three- or four-point plan for solving nearly any problem you can imagine and then some.

There is only one problem with this scenario. As president, Kerry could rid the government of Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld, and banish the neoconservative warmongers who have been operating in the shadows of the Bush administration. He could command the world's most powerful bully pulpit to promote his agenda and to set national priorities, and he could wield his veto pen to check the worst excesses of Congress. Yes, a president can make a difference _ up to a point.

However, if voters maintain or strengthen Republican control of the House and the Senate, little is likely to change under a Democratic president. We can look forward to another period of divided government, which is not always bad, and even nastier partisan warfare as Republican lawmakers resist a Democratic president's assault on the conservative agenda they have advanced during the one-party rule of the Bush administration.

The area where a new president could make the greatest difference is in foreign policy, which has been Kerry's primary interest in the Senate. A president sets not only the tone but the direction of U.S. foreign policy. The commander in chief can commit American troops to battle with or without congressional approval, and he can bring the moral authority to bear in shaping a public consensus on critical foreign policy decisions.

On the domestic front, however, the president needs bipartisan support in Congress to advance his agenda, and as long as Republicans are in control on Capitol Hill and the country is polarized, Kerry would face fierce opposition on everything from rolling back Bush's tax cuts to getting his judicial nominations through the Senate. Republican leaders such as Tom Delay would choose gridlock over compromise on just about any issue.

But suppose the voters, to everyone's astonishment, decided to not only send George W. Bush back to Texas but to restore Democratic control of the Congress _ the kind of political revolution Newt Gingrich pulled off in 1996? That would give President Kerry and congressional Democrats an open road to press their liberal spending agenda, right?

The Democrats could radically reorder our spending priorities and repeal tax cuts for Americans making $200,000 or more and they still would be hard-pressed to pay for massive new investments in education, health care, Medicare, homeland security and other programs high on their promise list. The Bush budget deficits are a huge obstacle in the road to the future, and there are no easy detours around this mountain of debt, just painful political choices that neither party is eager to make.

For months now the Democratic presidential candidates have been talking about "taking back our country" from the Bush administration and its corporate friends and changing its direction in foreign and domestic policy. Many voters seem game to do just that. However, if Americans really want to do more than just change presidents _ and I'm not even sure about that _ they will have to overthrow Republican rule on Capitol Hill this November and restore Democrats to a majority. Otherwise, not much is likely to change in Washington except the volume of partisan debate, no matter who the president is.

E-mail Philip Gailey at