December 25, 2003
Crystal Ball Sees
It seems like we've been on the verge of 2004 for ages -- presidential election years always seem to distort the space-time continuum -- but now it's really upon us, and a lively year it is certain to be.
Congress and the White House are up for grabs, the war on terrorism is sputtering and political leaders face a host of pressing domestic problems that they did their best to duck in 2003. In addition, the Middle East is its usual seething tangle, ready to ensnare policymakers here and around the world.
Here are a few predictions for the coming 12 months.
• The Presidency: More Up for Grabs Than the Pundits Say
Today's conventional wisdom is that improving economic news and Saddam Hussein's capture have made President Bush all but invincible. Guess again. Many key indices point to the president's reelection, but that conventional wisdom could be upset in a moment by a down tick in the shaky economy, new terrorist attacks, big new scandals or bad news in Iraq.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, pulling far ahead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, could become a formidable candidate if he learns to stop shooting himself in the foot and steers toward the political center.
Some Jewish voters, concerned primarily about Israel, will make the long-awaited shift to the Republican side, but don't look for a mass exodus to the promised land of the GOP.
• Congress: More Republican, More Partisan
A year ago, the Democrats were plotting strategies for winning back one or both houses of Congress. Today, they're trying to figure out how to limit their losses.
In 2003, the razor-thin GOP Senate margin allowed Democrats to block a few of the administration's most controversial domestic proposals and a handful of judicial nominees. November's election will likely make it harder for them to keep that up.
• The Budget: More Red Ink
Lawmakers passed several big tax cuts in the past two years, then fled the scene of the crime, abandoning 11 of 13 appropriation bills.
In January, lawmakers will have to pass a giant "continuing resolution" to keep the government running for the rest of the fiscal year. That pork-filled legislation is the opposite of the fiscal discipline both parties piously promised.
Then it will be time to deal with next year's budget. The fiscal problems that gave Congress such fits this year will be that much more severe, because they were just put off. Soaring defense costs could lead to overwhelming pressure for domestic spending cuts.
However, with elections in November, lawmakers may once again dodge the bullet, putting off the hard decisions until 2005, producing bigger federal deficits and a bigger burden for the next generation.
• More Hype About Marriage
The Massachusetts Supreme Court decision on gay marriage will propel so-called defense of marriage constitutional amendments to political center stage. Conservative Christian groups will pull out all the stops; gay and civil rights groups will fight just as hard on the other side.
The issue will become even more dominant, because of politicians eager to divert attention from vexing issues -- such as terrorism and the retirement crisis -- and it will continue to divide the Jewish community, with Orthodox groups supporting the religious conservatives, defense organizations and the Reform movement backing the civil rights advocates.
• More Movement Toward Public Funding of Parochial Schools
School voucher supporters are close to winning a big skirmish in their war -- a model voucher program for the District of Columbia. That could ignite a flurry of new voucher proposals at the state and local levels. The Supreme Court will rule in June on a case that could really open the floodgates to new programs for parochial school funding.
The Bush administration will also continue using its executive authority to give grants to religious groups that provide health and services.
• More of the Same in U.S-Israel Relations
There's plenty of potential for new U.S.-Israel friction, but the Sharon government has a powerful protector: Yasser Arafat. As long as Arafat is back at the helm of Palestinian government, Washington won't really turn the screws on Jerusalem, unless Sharon goes too far with his security barrier and his proposal for "disengagement" from the Palestinians.
Less clear is the impact of a self-proclaimed protector of Israel in this country: the Christian right. Televangelists and conservative politicians such as Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have become avid backers of the Sharon government and of the idea that Israel should not give up any land to the Palestinians.
However, many of these new Zionists have been reluctant to go against a Republican president when he pressures Israel. New conflict over the fence and Sharon's proposal could put that new friendship to the test.
• New Jewish Divisions Over Peace
Jewish doves, paralyzed by the resumption of Palestinian terror in 2000, are coming back to life, but centrist Jewish groups here have shifted to the right. In Israel, Sharon's call for removing some settlements will touch off a furious battle that will spill over onto the American Jewish scene.
All of that means more polarization than ever in a Jewish community that will continue to support Israel, but which has very different visions for the Jewish State's future.