Mr. Bush Gets His Honeymoon

Before the election, I wrote in this column that "several possible squeaker scenarios could produce some strange political dynamics after November 7" [TAP, November 6, 2000]. Of course, I had no idea just how strange the outcome would be, though I started off with the possibility of "one candidate winning the electoral college and another winning the popular vote" and speculated that the Senate might end up tied 50-50. But where I really went wrong was in saying that if the popular vote went one way and the electoral college another, there could be a "crisis of presidential legitimacy."

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the election's aftermath is that none of what happened, nationally or in Florida, seems to make any difference now. George W. Bush had, among winning presidential candidates, the biggest losing margin in history (more than half a million votes), and he almost certainly would have lost the electoral college too if the intentions of Florida voters were fully registered. These are not secrets, but they might as well be--actually, they would have more impact if they were, and people just whispered about them sub rosa. Since Bush took office, he has had no need to acknowledge the peculiar circumstances of his election, and no one has seemed to notice any bad odor about his presidency--it has all vanished, like a bad dream.

What's more, the closeness of the election seems to be working in Bush's favor. If there is one lesson I take from his rise to the presidency, it is this: Never underestimate a man who enjoys low expectations. Nearly everyone expected that Bush would be a disaster in the presidential debates, which was why he did so well. Since the election, nearly everyone has expected a recession, which may help his economic policies appear to be a success. And because of the bitterly contested presidential race and near-equal split in Congress, hardly anyone has expected Bush to get much legislation enacted, which will make every bill he signs seem more remarkable. It is the reverse of the psychology of an electoral mandate. Because he has no mandate, every victory for the new president is that much more of an accomplishment.

In fact, with control of both houses of Congress, the Republicans are in a position to pass major bills that President Clinton blocked or that the Republicans themselves held up because they didn't want to act before the election. A substantial tax cut now seems certain; so does an education bill, and likewise a defense buildup. Democratic defectors on these votes will provide a happy plus for the president who said he'd be a great uniter; he didn't promise to unite Democrats, did he? "No one thought this could happen," the commentators will be saying after the bipartisan bill-signing ceremonies, as if Bush had performed some kind of magic.

Inexorably, the noxious odors of the election dissipate, while the raw power of a party in possession of the entire government remains an obdurate and inescapable fact. Republicans control not only the two political branches, the executive and Congress, but also the ostensibly nonpolitical: the Supreme Court and the institution that ought to be recognized as the fourth branch, the Federal Reserve.

With allies in charge of all these institutions, Bush has a far stronger hand than most analysts granted him before he took office. The Democrats' lack of any institutional base in Washington allows the president a clear channel to dominate national discussion. With only a few exceptions, such as campaign finance reform, the issues now on the national agenda--taxes, energy production, vouchers, faith-based services, Social Security privatization--are the ones that Bush and the Republicans put there. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are not just out of office, they are off the national stage; and the Republicans thus far have no effective competitors in framing the issues--no political leaders inside the circle of power, and no social movements outside.

Domination of all the major branches of government also gives the Republicans another means of shaping the national discussion. They control the numbers, such as the economic forecasts used in projecting tax revenues. During periods of divided government, while one party controls the Congressional Budget Office, the other has the Office of Management and Budget. To be sure, the numbers are supposed to be purely technical products, but everything depends on the assumptions that go into them.

Whoever became president as a result of the 2000 election was bound to enjoy certain enviable conditions. The projected federal surpluses enable a new administration to cut taxes and spend at the same time (unlike the Clinton administration in 1993, which faced staggering deficits and paid an enormous price in 1994 for raising taxes). The absence of any pressing crises today, domestic or international, provides a historic opportunity to put new ideas into circulation and new policies into practice. This is a shaping moment--a moment lost to the Democrats and now given to a Republican administration. Bush had no mandate from the voters in the election, but if the Democrats cannot recover the power at least of their convictions, he will be able to create one after the fact.

Several Democratic members of Congress are planning to run for president in 2004. If they are looking for a time to show their leadership, they don't have to wait. The opposition needs a vision and it needs a voice, and whoever can supply them, by challenging Bush on fundamental questions of public purpose, may well earn the right to face him at the next election.

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