Later than most two-term presidents, George Bush got his mandate. To be sure, he did get one on Sept. 11 from Osama bin Laden but, until Tuesday, not from the American people. The bin Laden mandate gave him freedom of action on a very large scale (two wars, the Patriot Act). With it he produced a remarkable success in Afghanistan and a still-unresolved war in Iraq. Above all was the one inescapable if unspoken fact, greatly overlooked in explaining this election: Three years had passed since Sept. 11 and, against all expectations, we had not been attacked again.
This election was a referendum on Bush's handling of his first, accidental mandate. The endorsement was resounding. First, his electoral college victory was solid. He went over the top without a single state being closely contested. He won all but three with a majority of 7 percentage points or more, and the others -- Ohio by 2.5 points, Nevada by 3 and Florida by 5 -- he won comfortably.
Second, there was the popular vote. Bush supporters should not gloat too much about the popular vote, given the fact that they lost it last time. Nonetheless, if you have already won the electoral vote, it is okay to talk about the popular vote as a kind of adjunct legitimizer. And a 3.5-million-vote margin is a serious majority.
Third, he increased his party's representation in both the House and the Senate. The sweetest victory of all was the dispatching of Tom Daschle. Winning control of the executive branch while at the same time overthrowing, indeed retiring, your chief congressional antagonist enlarges the mandate. This will be particularly important for the main business of this Congress, which will be repopulating an aging and ailing Supreme Court.
What will Bush do with his mandate? Second terms can be very treacherous. They generally die of inertia. With the president a lame duck, there is not much on his agenda. There is only power, and power without purpose corrupts.
Which is why second terms are particularly prone to scandal. It is no accident that the major scandals of the last three decades have all happened to second-termers -- Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Bush will not choose inertia. Obviously on foreign policy that is not even an option, since he has the war on terror and a job to finish in Iraq. It is in domestic affairs, however, that he is likely to surprise.
Many popular political leaders hoard their political capital. For leaders in their last term, that is a sign of vanity. It is the mark of greatness to be willing to spend your remaining political capital on something important rather than good press. Harry Truman left office scorned and unloved. History has been very kind to him. He spent all of his political capital, his account so depleted by Korea that he did not have enough to run for reelection in 1952.
Reagan and Clinton, on the other hand, left office popular, which to me is a great failing. They retired rich in political capital. What a waste.
Bush will not waste his. As he said explicitly during his news conference yesterday, "I earned capital on the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it." After all, in his first term, with his political career at stake, he undertook Iraq, something that no one asked him to do and that promised only terrible political risk. He knew that he was wagering his presidency but did it nonetheless because he thought it necessary for the safety of the nation.
If he did not hoard his political capital then, he will not now. Knowing he will never again run for office, he is going to attempt several large things, most notably reforming Social Security and perhaps radically simplifying the tax code. He was careful to mention both in his speech on Wednesday when he claimed the election, and during his news conference yesterday when he claimed his mandate. These tasks carry such political risk that politicians rarely talk about them, let alone attempt them. In his first term Bush devoted no political capital to these domestic issues because he had spent it all on Afghanistan and Iraq. With a second term and a solid mandate, his account is replenished. He is not a man to sit on it, collecting coupons.
Whatever you think of Bush, he can hardly be accused of playing small ball. His first term was all about large projects. And this time he has a popular mandate, increased control of both houses of Congress, no worry about reelection, and obvious and long-avoided generational problems staring the country right in the face.
Great leaders are willing to retire unloved and unpopular as the price for great exertion. Bush appears bent on exertion.