If Congress treats Bill Clinton the way it did Jimmy Carter, we won't be out of power for 12 years but for 28 years next time.
The speaker: Walter F. Mondale.
That's one way of putting it. Another way would be to reverse the thought. If Mr. Clinton treats Congress the way Jimmy Carter did, the Democrats could and should be out of power for a long, long time. Mr. Carter, the last Democratic president, cut short his honeymoon with a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1977 after only a month. He issued a hit list of water projects that alienated Rocky Mountain country and convinced many lawmakers he was a Southerner with a cramped view of the country, despite the presence of an experienced Minnesota senator as his vice president.
"There is no doubt that I could have done things better," Mr. Carter confessed in his memoirs. Congressional Quarterly Almanac, commenting on the sorry record on Capitol Hill the last time Congress and the White House were of the same party, said: "It is hard to imagine that the president could have come up with a more volatile idea."
We cite this bit of history not to puncture euphoria in Little Rock but as a caution to President-elect Clinton and his Washington-savvy vice president, Sen. Al Gore. The voters have declared emphatically that they are sick of gridlock between a Democratic Congress and a Republican White House. They will be equally disappointed if it turns out that gridlock is as much institutional as it is political, and that one-party domination of both branches doesn't help the country "do better."
Mr. Clinton must be aware of these dangers and eager to begin with an FDR-style "Hundred Days" of great accomplishment. As a governor with three times Mr. Carter's experience and a better record of working with his state legislature, he should be more attuned to the sensitivities of Congress.
Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell was quick to say he looked forward to enacting an "aggressive" Clinton program. But Senate Republican leader Bob Dole was just as quick to question whether the president-elect really has a "mandate" in view of his election with only 43 percent of the popular vote. Such positioning was predictable. It mattered not that the very liberal Senator Mitchell's agenda may differ on key items from the centrist Clinton White House or that Senator Dole's barb was essentially phony, since third-man Ross Perot skewed the popular vote figures.
However matters shake out, the Democrats will not be able to blame it on the Republicans if the Clinton program runs aground. The responsibility for governing will be theirs. Finger-pointing and blame-mongering will work no more. The American people want and deserve a federal system that functions rather than fidgets.