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Archive for Friday, November 5, 2004

Not a mandate but a chance to do better

November 5, 2004

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— First: Congratulations to the American nation for a peaceful, overwhelming turnout by voters and election workers determined to conduct Tuesday's elections by the rules. They seem to have come as close to this goal as is humanly possible.

Second: Congratulations to George W. Bush. His relatively modest but abundantly clear victory in the national popular vote gives him an opportunity to rise above politics and his controversial first term. He has been given not a mandate for more of the same but a chance to do better.

Third: Congratulations to John Kerry. In three televised debates and in his campaign's closing month, Kerry most often lived up to Hemingway's definition of courage by showing grace under pressure. He needs that quality now in reconciling his supporters to a bitter loss that raises serious questions about the Democratic Party's purchase on a broad national identity.

The urgent message out of this election is for Bush. Shifts in 20 to 30 precincts in a single state could have changed the outcome. That should be a sobering morning-after thought for a candidate who ran with the enormous advantages of an incumbent wartime president.

The results suggest that Bush did not attract many new votes from the political center and that his economic record did not make voters comfortable about extending his tenure. Both shortcomings threaten his effort at a credible, enduring legacy if they are not addressed in a second term.

Bush must now treat the economy as Kerry would have had to treat the Iraq War -- a difficult situation capable of getting a lot worse very quickly if the president does not exercise clear and quick leadership.

Just as Kerry considered including influential Republicans in his national security/foreign policy team to underline the shared burdens of Iraq -- and to cover his back against partisan sharpshooting as he sought risky change -- Bush should engage prominent Democrats in fighting mounting deficits.

With Republican majorities returned to the Senate and House, Bush will have no excuses if the financial bloodbath that many fear does occur on his watch. For the first time in a decade, specialists report, the rate at which economic productivity grows every year is not increasing in the last months of 2004.

The unprecedented, technology driven growth in productivity has kept interest rates and inflation down and enabled the White House and Congress to treat tax cuts and entitlement spending as a free-lunch program for constituents.

Circumstances differ, but Bush and Josh Bolton, the capable director of the Office of Management and Budget, might take a page from the playbook of Ronald Reagan and David Stockman. After the 1980 election, budget ceilings were drawn up before new Cabinet secretaries were named and given a chance to argue that their departments all needed more money.

By whatever mechanism, Bush needs to deliver a strong message that he is looking at the next four years differently. True in foreign policy as well, it is particularly true on Iraq. Bush stubbornly refused during the campaign to admit error and before that tolerated internal divisions, battles and confusion that handicapped the war effort. Not four more years of that, please.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are the symbols of these divisions. Each may be reluctant to award a "victory" to the other by leaving first. That possibility has been factored into the rivalry.

"Tell me how long Rumsfeld will stay, add a day, and Colin will be out of there," says one of Powell's friends. Rumsfeld also has reasons to spend another year, or less, in office to cancel out any impression of leaving in failure.

But Bush should avoid temporizing on such important appointments. Powell and Rumsfeld should be immediately reappointed for full terms, or become part of a general turnover in the Cabinet by Inauguration Day. And Bush should begin now in a very visible way to consult with senior Democrats, including Kerry, with war critics within his own party such as Sens. Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar, and with foreign leaders who have limited their support and enthusiasm for Bush's policies.

Re-election should give him the confidence as well as the opportunity for this. So should the fact that his vision of moderate Islamic leaders taking on the burden of fighting Islamist terrorist networks is generally right, even if its implementation has been flawed. At the very least, Tuesday's result gives the nation a chance to know the ending of the story of George W. Bush's effort to remake the Middle East.

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