WASHINGTON -- After Europe's liberals helped Count Cavour unify Italy, he was asked how he would discharge that moral debt. He said he would astonish the world with his ingratitude.
Today, conservatives, who are temperamental pessimists and George W. Bush's base, are bracing themselves for betrayal in the name of "bipartisanship." They know talk about bipartisanship is usually a partisan tactic.
But Mr. Bush, too, probably knows that most political and journalistic boilerplate about the need to "heal" the "deeply divided nation" has the partisan purpose of paralyzing him, turning him away from his political program, toward therapeutic gestures of "healing." But what wounds need healing? Those inflicted by a campaign best described by Freud's phrase "the narcissism of small differences"?
Fifty years ago the names of Joseph McCarthy, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs denoted America's differences. Thirty-five years ago Americans argued about guaranteeing African-Americans access to public accommodations and polling places. Thirty years ago the nation was riven by a ground war of attrition in Asia. Twenty years ago a president who believed the Soviet Union was "the focus of evil in the modern world" replaced a president whose secretary of state had said that Leonid Brezhnev "shares our dreams and aspirations." Today, who really believes Americans are at daggers drawn about the differences between Mr. Bush's and Al Gore's plans for prescription drug benefits?
Granted, many African-American leaders are miffed, but what else is new? For Jesse Jackson, it is forever Selma, Ala., 1965. Brit Hume of Fox News notes that Mr. Jackson, a diligent recycler of rhetoric, has recently been reminded of Selma by the Supreme Court; Palm Beach County's butterfly ballot; a Houston debate about racial preferences; a Decatur, Ill., dispute about high school discipline; and an accidental police shooting in Riverside, Calif. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has said, jokingly, his father wanted to name him Selma.
The Congressional Black Caucus is pouting, many members threatening an action that might not be noticed -- a boycott of inaugural events. The three most admired Americans may be Oprah Winfrey (Mr. Bush's kissing her helped re-ignite his sagging campaign), Colin Powell and Michael Jordan, and the three most eminent African-Americans in public service -- Clarence Thomas, Powell and Condoleezza Rice -- have ascended with Republican sponsorship. Yet the Black Caucus in its time warp clings to the idea that African-Americans are as much victims of racism as they were 40 years ago.
Tom Daschle, Senate Democratic leader, says bipartisanship is wonderful. He also says: Mr. Bush's proposed tax cut "would divide this nation more quickly" than anything he, Mr. Daschle, can think of. Mr. Bush's proposal for partial privatization would "destroy" Social Security. Mr. Bush's modest proposal for school choice for pupils in failing schools is "a non-starter." So bipartisanship, as Mr. Daschle offers it, is akin to what Grant offered Lee at Appomattox: a chance to surrender.
However, the sputtering economy is strengthening the case for Mr. Bush's tax cut. The younger the voters polled, the more they support partial privatization of Social Security, so the evolution of the electorate favors Mr. Bush.
School choice is the most direct appeal Mr. Bush can make to African-American voters. They support choice more than do most African-American leaders, who are in league with teachers unions, and more than affluent whites, who are satisfied with their public schools.
Pressing for repeal of the estate tax and marriage penalty will give Mr. Bush either early signing ceremonies or will give Republicans issues for 2002. And Mr. Bush cannot lose by asking Congress to choose between defending America from ballistic missiles, or defending the 1972 ABM Treaty, which allows Russia to veto America's plans to defend itself.
Mr. Bush, fresh from a crash course on the importance of courts, should begin his presidency by standing his ground so he will have had ample practice doing that when the stakes become highest, with judicial nominees.
For example, three of the 66 vacancies on federal benches are on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Five of that court's nine serving judges were nominated by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. That is why the Environmental Protection Agency, a Niagara of scientifically dubious, economically imprudent and legally suspect regulations, has lost most of its cases in that court. If that court ceases to block regulatory excesses, the result will be as harmful to the economy as a reckless increase in taxes or interest rates.
So, here are four rejoinders to "bipartisanship" rhetoric: Conflict avoidance becomes habitual. Risk-averse presidents are constantly at risk. The rule regarding power is use it or lose it. And Mr. Bush will never have more of it than he will have next spring.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.