Bush's Terrible Twos
As for the Democrats, is there muscle behind their huffing? Will they, as some now are vowing, use extreme but legitimate means--filibusters and holds--to defeat Pickering and other nominees they consider unacceptable? Can they hang together in opposing the Bush tax plan, or will the White House be able to peel off a small number of Democrats with targeted compromises? (Most of the real action will occur in the Senate; the minority caucus there has a greater ability to obstruct than its counterpart in the House.) The political unit of ABC News recently offered a wise observation: "The President's macro message (and that of his party) is 'we want lots of tax cuts,' while the Democrats are left trying to talk tax cuts, but also, inevitably, saying things that make them at least seem opposed to tax cuts generally, and that is a matchup that George 'Dubya' Bush is 2 for 2 in national elections." Bush actually wants another fight on class warfare. The Democrats, PO'ed by Bush's charge that they are the ones playing class warfare, will need to match his determination--use that anger!--just as the party's 2004 contenders ought to be pondering how to counter Bush's brass with daring of their own.
The hubris runneth over indeed at 1600 Pennsylvania, but Bush and Rove are not kamikazes. (Cheney? Well, he may not be worrying about running for re-election.) Bush and his crew seem to realize there may be such a thing as going too far, though they define that quite liberally. Bush softened the tough-sheriff talk on North Korea. He made Lott walk the plank. And conservative advocates--psyched for war in Iraq and for brash tax cuts--have been concerned that Bush might nominate White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez (whom many right-wing partisans do not deem sufficiently conservative) for the next Supreme Court opening, sacrificing ideology for politically useful diversity. Bush may be held in check only by what he (or Rove) judges excessive--meaning what they assume will turn off soccer moms, suburban independents or whatever swing group they determine to be crucial to re-election. This White House wants to keep on claiming, as the campaign did, that Bush is a "different kind of Republican," not a meanie or a Lott-like GOP-er. While sticking with the "Southern strategy"--see Pickering--Bush recently chose to hold his 2004 GOP coronation in New York City. Obviously, he will be able to bask in the glow of the heroes of 9/11. Firefighters, emergency workers, police officers and rescue dogs will no doubt be featured at the convention, which will be a weeklong reminder that since that day Bush has been busy protecting you. But it will also showcase the non-Trent, different-kind-of-Republican wing of the party: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor George Pataki and, most of all, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
War may determine all for Bush. September 11 defined Bush's presidency, but then he decided to further (and fundamentally) define the Bush II years by promising a showdown with Saddam Hussein. There was no public clamor for moving from Afghanistan to Iraq (unless you count neocon commentators like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer). Bush elected to place the Iraq problem at the top of his to-do (before 2004) list. He can expect to be judged by voters on how he deals with this challenge. And his performance there may determine how much latitude he has in pushing the rest of his wish list. For now, he has a free hand to handle Iraq. Congress has stepped out of his way. Many in the international community have accepted that Bush will do what he wants and have opted to accommodate him (and cut the best deal they can with Washington). Iraq is truly Bush's signature project (with Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and other Dems signed on as junior--very junior--partners). It could undo his presidency, or it could solidify his popularity and political standing as America's protector. It remains the 800-pound X-factor--unless the North Korea situation worsens or terrorism strikes once more.
Entering Year Three, Bush is a potent President. It is sixteen months after 9/11. He has proven he can continue to exploit fully the natural boost in his approval ratings that followed the attacks--though they have been trending down. He and Rove have generally been even savvier than they were on the campaign trail. But with the tax cuts and the Pickering et al. nominations, Bush has outed himself. In 2000 he attempted to have it both ways. He was solidly conservative--tax cuts, partial privatization of Social Security, anti-abortion rights--while he plotted to blur the traditional differences between the parties by proclaiming that he, too, cared about education, healthcare, poor people, the elderly and minorities. That basic strategy is not going to change. But with his recent excesses--overreaching, the Democrats are saying longingly--Bush has further widened the gap between his conservatism and his (feigned) compassion. Optimistic Democrats smell opportunity.
During the 2002 Congressional elections, Democrats failed to distinguish themselves clearly enough from Bush. Well, now they can thank Bush for doing that job for them. His desire to go for the bold--using the political might he has skillfully amassed--offers his opposition an opening. Is it possible that the stronger Bush acts, the more vulnerable he will become? His foes can wish for that. Bush did thrive when he was underestimated. Perhaps he is a better target when overestimated--especially if by himself.