Doubts About Mandate for Bush, GOP

President Bush tries to rally support for his Social Security and energy plans, among other proposals, in a prime-time news conference last week.
President Bush tries to rally support for his Social Security and energy plans, among other proposals, in a prime-time news conference last week. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 2, 2005

The day after he won a second term in November, President Bush offered his view of the new political landscape.

"When you win there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view," he said, "and that's what I intend to tell the Congress, that I made it clear what I intend to do as president . . . and the people made it clear what they wanted, now let's work together."

Six months ago, this comment was widely viewed as more than just a postgame boast. Among campaign strategists and academics, there was ample speculation that Bush's victory, combined with incremental gains in the Republican congressional majority, signaled something fundamental: a partisan and ideological "realignment" that would reshape politics over the long haul.

As the president passed the 100-day mark of his second term over the weekend, the main question facing Bush and his party is whether they misread the November elections. With the president's poll numbers down, and the Republican majority ensnared in ethical controversy, things look much less like a once-a-generation realignment.

Instead, some political analysts say it is just as likely that Washington is witnessing a happens-all-the-time phenomenon -- the mistaken assumption by politicians that an election won on narrow grounds is a mandate for something broad. In Bush's case, this includes restructuring Social Security and the tax code and installing a group of judges he was unable to seat in his first term. This was the error that nearly sank Bill Clinton's presidency in his first years in office in 1993 and 1994 when he put forth a broad health care plan, and that caused then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican "Revolution" to stall in 1995 in a confrontation over cutting spending for popular domestic programs.

Even with authentic realignments, "as soon as you've recognized that one has happened, the next one [replacing it] may already be happening," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College who closely studies Republican politics.

He cautions against drawing large conclusions from the evidence of 100 days, and notes that "the indications are all over the map" about how decisively national politics moved toward the GOP after last fall's elections.

With comparatively little furor -- and the support of a significant minority of Democrats -- Bush in his first 100 days has enacted far-reaching proposals to restructure the nation's laws on bankruptcy and class-action lawsuits.

Judged by conventional standards, such legislative victories would signal a second-term president performing at full throttle. But Bush signaled from the moment of his reelection that he was not contemplating a conventional second term.

Instead, on the advice of White House strategists such as Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and White House director of strategic initiatives Peter Wehner, he settled on a bolder-is-better strategy. The rationale, according to White House aides, is that most second-term presidents tend to lose their policymaking leverage quickly. This dictated moving quickly and decisively -- to ensure that Bush remained the dominant figure setting Washington's agenda and to take full advantage of a narrow window.

By this reckoning, White House aides say, Social Security is a natural issue, because it shows Bush taking on a problem that most politicians had timidly avoided, and it could turn retirement security -- political turf owned for decades by Democrats -- into a Republican issue.

Even among many influential conservatives, there has been a growing consensus that the Bush governing theory, at least on Social Security, has been proved wrong. The conservative Weekly Standard magazine recently warned in a headline of a "Social Security Quagmire," and argued that Bush should position himself so that a defeat on the issue does not cripple other parts of his agenda or produce big Republican losses in next year's congressional elections.

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