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.