It's another four years--this time with a legitimate win behind him--and the prospects for George W. Bush's second term are grim. He is stronger politically; the Democratic opposition is weaker, especially in the Senate, where the Republicans gained several seats and closed in on a filibuster-proof super-majority. Bush and the GOP demonstrated that they could locate and mobilize their voters. The Democrats--even with big-money efforts (America Coming Together and its ad-buying sister outfit raised and spent more than $200 million)--could not match them. Bush now has more power than he did before the election. He will use it. And he is likely to adopt the game plan that served him well at the start of his first term: Move fast and move hard.
To what ends? Bush signaled his intentions before the election: partial privatization of Social Security, tax "reform" and tort "reform." And there is no reason not to take him at his word. On election night, Bush adviser Karen Hughes was talking about Social Security before the counting was done. "Ronald Reagan used his second term to justify nothing and to lay out an agenda for nothing," says Grover Norquist, a leading GOP activist/strategist. "Bush has already started laying out a vision of what he calls 'the ownership society.' It's a coherent worldview." It not only covers partial privatization of Social Security but the expansion of IRAs and health savings accounts. The point, says Norquist, is to wrap a Social Security initiative in a broader package with PR appeal. Norquist also envisions Bush pressing for a business-oriented tax cut before considering tax "reform." (Such a scheme will be billed as simplification, but it could also rejigger the tax code in favor of Bush's preferred beneficiaries: the rich.) And Bush will "shove" tort reform, Norquist says, "up the Democrats' backside."
The trend lines seem obvious. Bush can be expected to continue his undeclared war on environmental safeguards, to propose expanding the Patriot Act and to maintain his effective ban on stem-cell research. He has shown no willingness to reconsider decisions that have allowed various security needs--such as those at chemical plants and ports--to go unaddressed. He will further pursue policies that feed the gargantuan deficits and will deny the overwhelming fiscal fiasco. Before the election, his Administration was preparing for severe cuts in social programs. He may not take explicit steps to outlaw abortion. But he won't have to be explicit. It is inconceivable that Bush will not have the opportunity to appoint at least one Supreme Court Justice--William Rehnquist may provide the first vacancy--and he could get the chance to fill up to four openings. A Bush Court would be predisposed toward overturning Roe v. Wade. Presumably it would undermine environmental laws, be hostile to gay rights and put into action the goals of the right-wing "federalist" movement, which hails states' rights and property rights.
"On foreign policy, the big question mark," says Norquist, "is, What has the President and the Republican Party learned from Iraq? Did he learn it was a bridge too far and doesn't want to do three more of these? Or will he think, 'We got elected, let's do Egypt'?" Bush, Norquist adds, could end up at odds with conservatives on the "empire front." He observes, "If this is perpetual war to achieve perpetual peace, then it's out of sync with conservative members of Congress and his own base. They don't want a permanent garrison state with high taxes, a draft and a big government." But Bush has committed himself to "staying the course" (whatever it is) in Iraq and also to remaking the Middle East. He has fully embraced the hubris and arrogance of the neocons. Why should Bush change his fundamental national security views when he has escaped punishment for hyping a threat, misleading the country into an unnecessary war and alienating much of the globe?
The next four years could be dark ones. It is true that in recent decades second terms have been burdened by scandal (Watergate, Iran/contra, Monicagate). And the pattern could hold. Obstruction of justice in the Joe Wilson leak case? A Bush crony or relative caught profiting improperly in Iraq (Iraqgate)? And second-term administrations have often lost steam, as senior officials depart for high-paying private-sector jobs (while their White House connections are fresh) and are replaced by the B team. But Bush has often defied history: winning (sort of) in 2000 during a time of seeming prosperity and peace, protecting his party's position in Congress in mid-term elections and achieving re-election when the economy was down. History provides little comfort. And certainly the politics will be ugly. The Bush camp has been rewarded for its tactics of distortion and derision. Bush and Dick Cheney appealed to people's fears. And the lesson for them and the Republicans is clear: This worked, let's do more.
Who will lead the bloodied and weakened Democrats? Senate majority leader Tom Daschle was forcibly retired in South Dakota. Is there a successor who can do battle in the legislative mud pit and be a public force? Senator Hillary Clinton won't be vying for the job. It is a lousy launch pad for a presidential campaign. She, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark and others--Senator Joe Biden, Senator Evan Bayh, Al Gore, Governor Bill Richardson, Governor Tom Vilsack--will be busy jockeying for tactical advantage in 2008, as the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party resume their ongoing brawl. Was Kerry too liberal? Was he too moderate? This debate has already begun.
But it was not just the Kerry campaign that fell short. The party professionals have much to answer for. The organizers did not churn out the necessary Democratic voters. The Dems in charge of Ohio misread the reality on the ground. Karl Rove, Bush's über-strategist, apparently succeeded in luring hordes of social conservatives to the polls in Ohio and elsewhere with anti-gay marriage initiatives. The so-called brains of the Democratic Party had no countervailing strategy.
There will be hard and dreadful days ahead for both the Democrats and the nation. The only good news is that the final tally--51 to 48 percent--demonstrates that there remains a great split in America. Praise that divide and prepare for the worst.