One thing we know about George W. Bush is that he doesn't listen to the timid. If he wins reelection, especially by a narrow margin, there'll be plenty of people counseling timidity. Democratic politicians and pundits will say -- again -- that he has no mandate, and that Congress has enough on its plate without his proposing a controversial agenda.
But think back four years. In 2001, after a nail-biter election and a Supreme Court intervention, Bush managed to push through his tax cuts and get a generally conservative Cabinet confirmed. He decided to use the Republican Congress to make his own mandate. My bet is that he'll do the same thing in 2005.
He'll continue to prosecute the war on terrorism aggressively (though within the constraints created by the bitter aftermath of the Iraq war). There will be some of the normal second-term Cabinet reshuffling. Some legislation will force its way onto his agenda. And he will seize the opportunity to push some new domestic initiatives.
Bush's foreign policy will not, of course, fit the early 2001 template. With the exception of the U.S. surveillance plane brought down over China in April, foreign concerns didn't preoccupy his first 100 days back then. The situation this time around will be very different. Bush would doubtless take his reelection as a vindication of his general approach: relatively dismissive of recalcitrant allies, prepared to initiate military action, convinced of the importance of spreading liberty in the Middle East. But not even a strong Bush win will eliminate the constraints the Iraq venture has placed on him. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the difficulty in creating democracy have made any future interventions overseas a hard sell. The troops are spread too thin for another war, anyway. So the (few) exponents of a larger military campaign in the Middle East, or against North Korea, will be disappointed, and those who fear the same will be relieved.
In dealing with Iran, North Korea and Sudan, Bush can be expected to look for options short of a ground invasion. How free a hand he'll have will depend on events in Iraq, where he may launch a major offensive against the insurgents in Fallujah and elsewhere between our election and Iraqi elections in January. If it should succeed, and if the elections in Iraq proceed, confidence in Bush would increase and he'd have more foreign-policy leeway. In Iraq itself, however, success is likely to curtail his freedom of action: The new government there could well put pressure on the United States to depart.
The governments of France, Germany and Spain, as well as much of the European public will be upset and confused by a Bush win. It is possible, however, that within a few months Europe, with its famed foreign-policy realism, would adjust. Its soft power would have proven unable to prevent the Iraq war or to punish Bush by influencing American voters. The result might be a scaling-down of European demands and a brief opportunity for rapprochement.
What Bush can do on the domestic front will depend on how well he does on Tuesday: his share of the popular and electoral votes, how many Republicans he brings with him to Washington -- and especially whether one of them is John Thune. If Thune beats Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in their South Dakota contest, discipline in Democratic ranks could break down, and Bush could get more bills passed and judges confirmed.
Even if Bush proposes no agenda, the congressional calendar will be packed. The USA Patriot Act will have to be renewed. Congress will have to revisit the temporary highways bill it passed this year before it expires in the spring. There will have to be a vote on the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Normal budget battles will intensify as the Hill considers a "supplemental" bill to fund ongoing operations in Iraq. Some congressmen will try to make Iraqis pay for those, but a Bush White House will oppose them. Bush may then have to show greater spending restraint on everything else to appease conservatives.
Congress may also be busy confirming new Cabinet officers. Will the president try to create a more cohesive national security team? It's not clear that any of the current Cabinet -- including lightning rods such as John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld -- have lost Bush's confidence. Nor is it clear that Colin Powell wants to go. It's hard to imagine any plausible Bush replacements for these men who wouldn't inspire strong Democratic opposition.
Bush will probably add to Congress's workload. The first half of 2005 will present him with the opportunity to pass some big legislation that will give a sense of direction to his second term and cement his legacy. He has three big ideas he could push: an immigration overhaul, tax reform and Social Security reform.
The president believes strongly in his proposal for a temporary-worker program to bring illegal immigration out of the shadows. But the public doesn't support it, and conservative congressmen tend to hate it. It can't be the tone-setter for his second term.
Tax reform, on the other hand, has strong support from Republican and even some Democratic congressmen. But the consensus breaks down as soon as a particular reform is specified. When candidates have embraced plans such as a national sales tax to replace the income tax, it has hurt them in their races. Bush may decide just to try to make his tax cuts permanent, create incentives for saving and call it "reform."
That leaves Social Security. On the stump, Bush talks about letting younger workers invest some of their payroll taxes in personal accounts -- and he's getting cheers. House Republicans have been nervous about moving on the issue, but the White House believes the plan is a long-term growth strategy for the GOP: the more people have invested in the markets, the more Republican they'll be. Republican National Committee head Ed Gillespie argues that the only way to overcome Democratic charges that the GOP will slash seniors' benefits is to enact a reform that leaves those benefits alone.
Getting the accounts started will be expensive in the short term, so the president will have to make difficult decisions about how large they should be and how to finance them, and then sell the plan on Capitol Hill. He'll probably need to put someone in charge of the sales job, someone like Herman Cain, the retired Godfather's Pizza executive who has become a conservative politician.
Moving forward on Social Security would be bold, even audacious. My guess is that's exactly what areelected Bush would want to be.
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