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Hail to the grief 

All the turmoil may end up giving George W. Bush his road map to a successful presidency

George Bush's biggest hope sat in a ballroom at the Biltmore in Midtown Monday night in the shape of two ol' Georgia Democrats.

Max Cleland and Zell Miller were autographing copies of their latest books for members of the Atlanta Press Club. They are longtime local pols who worked their way up the hard way, shaking hands, scratching backs and building networks of support in Georgia's courthouses and boardrooms. They are relatively recent migrants from Georgia's Gold Dome to the U.S. Capitol. Combined, they have barely four years of experience in the Senate.

But now - with Bush the presumed president-elect - Cleland and Miller are set to become about as popular in Washington as N'Sync would be at a convention of Girl Scouts. And they are bordering on giddy that they inhabit the increasingly popular middle ground on Congress' political landscape.

"Whoever sits in the Oval Office," Cleland says, "is just going to have to throw out the playbook -- you might as well tear that sucker up -- because the game is all about working with the other team now."

Bush lost the popular vote, faces the most evenly divided Congress history, and - if he does win the office - will do so with plenty of folks questioning his legitimacy. Add to that lingering doubts about whether the man himself is presidential material.

From the rearview window, those shortcomings might be seen as surefire signals that Bush was destined to be a weak, one-term president -- who lost Congress to the Democrats in the midterm 2002 elections.

But the truth is this is uncharted political territory. And there is plenty of reason to believe Bush's current political weakness could turn into a recipe for some truly groundbreaking success.

"Whoever is the ultimate winner ... hopefully will be smart enough to realize that, with the odds against them, they need to reach out" to the other party, says U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson of Marietta, the most moderate of Georgia's Republicans in Congress.

If the Texas governor, who ran as "a uniter, not a divider," recognizes that chance and stands up to the hard-right GOP leaders of his own party, he could quickly rack up legislative victories by reintroducing a partisan Congress to the fine art of compromise. Isakson "will betcha a cup of coffee" that Bush's first step in Congress will be to propose a Medicare benefit for prescription drugs and "targeted tax cuts" - rather than the across-the-board cuts he proposed during the campaign. Miller points to schools as an issue where Bush could pass major legislation.

"You take the [private school] vouchers off the table, and we're pretty close together on education," says the former Georgia governor who just won election to the Senate.

Cleland is guardedly optimistic about the increasing clout of moderates in the Senate, noting that the 50-50 split there will force Republican leaders to compromise with Democrats if they hope to get anything done. He and Miller got together last week to help organize a group of senators called the Centrist Coalition. And Cleland even sent a letter to renew bipartisan meetings of Georgia's congressional delegation ("Everybody has been positive about that except for Congressman [Bob] Barr.")

The catbird seat could restore some of the Senate clout Georgia lost with the 1996 retirement of Sam Nunn and this year's death of Paul Coverdell, something Miller in particular seems chomping to use in his new digs in Washington.

"I have always had a little bit of difficulty with some of these more partisan Democrats," the former governor says, recalling how he outmaneuvered many in his own party in Atlanta to approve restrictions on welfare.

Of course, not everyone would be happy if Democrats like Miller and Cleland helped Bush muster a successful presidency. Some folks - on both the right and the left - simply don't believe compromise positions are particularly good policy.

Environmental, abortion-rights and civil-rights advocates worry that Bush, with complicity from moderate Democrats, would use subtle measures like agency appointments and targeted funding cuts to reverse progress on those issues.

"Our concern is, of course, primarily with the Supreme Court," says Beth Cope, executive director of the Georgia Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. If Bush squeezes just one or two anti-abortion justices onto the bench, she notes, the court's majority would turn against a woman's right to choose. "We can replace the president in four years. But, with Chief Justice Rehnquist there since the Nixon administration, certainly the concern is that the Supreme Court crosses many generations."

While the larger question for moderate Democrats is whether they're willing to buck important groups in their party, a moderate President Bush would face the same challenges in his own party - particularly from the hard-right leadership of Congress. Barr, R-Smyrna, is general regarded as the most conservative of Georgia's very conservative Republican caucus, and he doesn't talk the talk of reconcilliation.

"The Democrats have not compromised the last six years," he says. "All of the compromise has come from our side."

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