Alchemy is the purported science of turning base metals into gold. It does not exist. Political alchemy is the ability to turn hard failures into gossamer triumphs. It does exist. The inauguration of George W. Bush for a second term proves it.
The president, of course, does not see it that way. He proclaims himself at the top of his game: ruler of the free world, liberator of Iraq and magnificent chief of the Grand Old Party. Most important, to him, is that his view is shared by the American people. His reelection was no mere mandate since, you will recall, he claimed that the last time, when he scratched out a win in Florida by a few hundred votes. No, this victory is a mandate of Rooseveltian dimensions.
In reality, Bush's view of the American people is not shared by the American people. In fact, a recent Post-ABC News poll found Bush with what you might call a negative mandate. Only 45 percent said they wanted the country to go in the direction Bush wanted. And on Iraq -- the No. 1 issue for most -- 58 percent disapproved of the way he's handled what to him is a grand triumph. The 60-day war is now in its second year, and the chorus of those urging a pullout grows louder and louder.
The war in Iraq is in fact a debacle, yet Bush talks about it as if it is going swimmingly. His original aims have been amended a bit -- now it's a grand march toward Middle East democracy. Daily, Americans are losing their lives for . . . well, it's hard to say. A Shiite majority? Sunni participation in the elections? An autonomous Kurdish state? All of these, without question, are issues that have long transfixed the people of Omaha and other cities in America and for which they have gladly sacrificed their sons and daughters.
Iraq aside, are there other areas in which the administration has done so well that you can say it explains Bush's smile? The economy? Hardly. It's okay; not really terrific and not bad either. It is, though, the recipient of huge and reckless tax cuts, which have spread cash as Tinkerbell does fairy dust. The result has been a burgeoning national debt that can be paid off only if space exploration discovers a planet of suckers willing to buy U.S. bonds.
Could it be education? Hardly. No Child Left Behind is a nifty slogan and maybe a good idea, but it is not the sort of thing that gets presidents on Mount Rushmore. Conservation? Are you mad? Agriculture? You jest. Maybe it's the way we've been able to stop nuclear proliferation or the way America is now respected around the world. Sorry. Just kidding.
The disjunction between Bush's performance and his demeanor is shared by much of Washington. The town is now in a celebratory mood, though precisely what is being celebrated is impossible to tell. As for Congress, it, too, has inhaled vapors of some kind. The Senate is expected shortly to confirm all of Bush's new Cabinet appointments, pleased as it can be that Alberto Gonzales probably won't tolerate torture anywhere within the Beltway and Condi Rice will, as Joe Biden instructed, determine just how many Iraqi troops have been trained -- a comforting 120,000, as she asserted, or a disquieting 4,000, as Biden had been told. Possibly the missing 116,000 are now guarding weapons of mass destruction in the Iraqi province of Oz.
Bush's unsurpassed achievement has been in turning fantasy into reality, failure into success. He strides the world stage, a smile on his face and a mandate in his pocket. Behold the gold! What, you don't see it? No matter. Washington does.