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Archive for Sunday, November 7, 2004

Bush ready to start building his legacy

November 7, 2004

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The president has won a second term, a second chance and a second wind. He stands triumphant in the face of a doubting world and a suspicious Democratic opposition. He has frustrated the doubters and confounded the skeptics. He has left his rivals in distress, disarray and distemper.

Like Ronald Reagan, he has changed American politics, applying simple intuition to a world of ever-more specialized and complex knowledge, finding opportunities where his opponents see only burdens. He has changed conservatism to reflect a changed world, infuriating critics who say he lacks vision but who fear that he may see things more clearly than they do. Mostly he is liberated now -- liberated from the sniff of illegitimacy that pervaded his first term, liberated from the notion that he was but a breath from defeat on Capitol Hill, liberated from the fear that, like it did with his father, a stubborn economy would deny him the political redemption that comes with a second term.

He is liberated to apply his brand of conservatism to the economy and to foreign affairs, not merely to mold it to the skepticism of his opponents.

New conservatism

He is liberated to send conservatism on a new path. He is liberated to build on his victory to consolidate Republicans' claim -- a claim that, if the Democrats are not careful they will in their post-mortems help bolster -- to be the natural party of government. He is liberated, too, to ignore the gyroscope of American politics and, like Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Reagan and Bill Clinton, watch the achievements of a first term be overshadowed by the hubris that comes with a second term.

There are perils aplenty ahead, most of them outside of the natural byplay of government. Al-Qaida may not be nearly as crippled as the administration claims. Worse yet, it may be just as crippled as the administration says and thus ready -- and willing -- to make a desperate move that will make Americans more desperate than ever for reassurance and healing. The war in Iraq is not going as badly as Sen. John F. Kerry said but not nearly as well as President Bush argued, either. There is plenty of opportunity for trouble there, and trouble has a way of finding a second-term president. The economy is not cured yet, for if it were the president wouldn't have had to strain so hard to make his case that the economic scenario is rosy.

But the eyes that only days ago were on Ohio have moved, and they are focused squarely on the president. He will have Cabinet changes to make, a new budget to draft, a new inauguration to plan, a new beginning to set forth. He will almost certainly reach out to Democrats, knowing that it is not only good manners, not only good politics, but that it is also good for the country. The Democrats played on the GOP's turf all fall -- my eyes may have been deceiving me, but didn't I see the nominee wearing hunting camouflage and carrying a rifle last month? -- and, now that the contest is over, Bush may have to play on the Democrats' turf, if only for a moment.

Watch for him to do so on Social Security, which may have started as a Democratic program but is now an American program.

The Democrats have little to say right now (except to each other, and that conversation, rehearsed in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 2000, is not pretty). They held the moral high ground, or so they said, in 2000, when Al Gore beat Bush in the popular vote, but in our system the popular vote is no more than an exhibition game. This time the Republicans have won the election in unambiguous fashion. They hold the White House, the House, the Senate and, as a consequence, they hold the whip hand in Washington.

Republican tensions

The Republicans now set out in a remarkable position, in some ways stronger than any they held under any president in a century. It is a time of clarity, and in that spirit, it is a time for Bush to clarify what he is going to do with the gift, and with the burden, that the American people have handed them.

This is a bigger challenge than it may appear. Beneath the surface of the modern Republican Party are many tensions -- the sort of tensions that small insurgencies seldom have but that large movements almost always spawn. A few years ago, the struggles inside the GOP were between seculars and religious.

That is passe, in large measure because the president himself is a religious conservative. A few months ago the struggles inside the GOP were between the neocons and the party regulars. That may be passe, too, for it is too late to abandon the war that the neocons helped prosecute.

The new tension is between the small-government conservatives and the big-government conservatives. It is prompted in part by the deficit, which always troubles traditional conservatives. But it is also prompted by Bush's ambitions. "Make no little plans," said Daniel Burnham, the architect whose fingerprints are all over American urban landscapes. He was talking about building a city.

Whatever you think of the president, you cannot argue that, like his predecessor, he makes little plans. Right now he's done his bit for party building, is working on nation building and has taken a big step toward legacy building. He may have the soul of an underachiever, but the thing that, more than ever, drives his skeptics crazy is that George Walker Bush, two-term president of the United States, is building the record of an overachiever.

-- David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.

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