Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Next President Bush

The New York Times
November 4, 2004

The Next President Bush

President George W. Bush has put to rest all the ghosts of his father's one-term administration. He won a solid re-election victory on Tuesday night. The country remains, of course, divided. It is the point of a national election to illuminate divisions - these days in stark blue and red. The 49 percent of the voting public who wanted a different outcome are disappointed, and in some cases crushed and frightened about the future of the country. Their first job is to accept the will of the majority. Then it will be time for everyone - Mr. Bush, the victorious Republicans and the people who opposed them - to decide what to do next.

Mr. Bush can either try for four years of the same, or look to his place in history. Yesterday, he offered at least some hope that he was choosing the higher road. "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation," he told the Kerry voters. Experience suggests that these conversions are short-lived. Four years ago, according to Vice President Dick Cheney, when Mr. Bush lost the popular vote and seemed to be in a position where consensus-seeking was a given, White House officials thought about taking a compromise centrist route for "about 30 seconds" before grabbing their old partisan agenda and running with it. In his speech yesterday, Mr. Cheney stressed the president's mandate. Given the way Mr. Cheney behaved during the first term, it's unnerving to imagine what he may have in mind now.

Obviously, the losers in this election are going to be far more eager to see Mr. Bush take a different, more moderate route this time than the winners - especially the triumphalist Congressional Republican leaders. But there's a yearning out there, in red states as well as blue, for a government that works better and with less partisanship. Many of the voters who support Mr. Bush are just as unhappy about economic uncertainties, lost jobs and the number of people who have no health insurance as the people who voted for Mr. Kerry. Vast majorities of Americans want to keep the federal deficit under control, make Social Security financially sound, protect benefits like Medicare and Medicaid, and be sure that there's adequate spending on homeland security.

Mr. Bush can address that national yearning - and leave a magnificent legacy to the country - but such an effort will require bipartisan action. Except for his education initiative, the president's domestic agenda thus far has been the product of the Republicans alone, and it has been a mess that has made nobody very happy. Tax cuts are easy to pass, even irresponsible ones. But spending cuts are not, and the president's own party refused to make them happen. Instead, Republican leaders bought the passage of the bills they needed by piling on masses of unnecessary, irresponsible pork. A truly heavy political lift, like fixing Medicare or restraining the deficit, requires national attention and the kind of political support that can come only if both parties feel they have something to gain from success.

For Mr. Bush's opponents, one of the great disappointments of this election was the fact that the war in Iraq had little impact on the outcome. The nation is worried about whether the Iraq conflict is going well, but many of the people who wonder whether the president made the wrong choices on that had other interests when they went to the polls: a preference for the president's personality, memories of 9/11 and concern over social issues like gay marriage. While Iraq did not in the end hurt the president's re-election campaign, it has not gone away. Although members of his team campaigned as if Iraq was going very well indeed, they know better. Finding a way out of the morass in Iraq must be the work of all Americans, and on this issue, the president has a real obligation to reach out to the other party. While Democrats may be quietly hoping that Mr. Bush runs into so many problems in the new term that the country will turn back to them in the next election, no partisans are so eager for political gain that they want to see Iraq plunged into an inferno of civil war and terrorism.

Tuesday's vote came as a particular shock in places like Europe, where much of the population simply couldn't conceive that people would want to keep Mr. Bush in power. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair made two important points to America's angry allies when he spoke about the results. One was that this is the right time for Mr. Bush to reach out to America's traditional allies - and time for the rest of the world to accept that he will be around for the next four years and must be dealt with as the American people's choice. The other is that the critical goal of stability in the Arab world will never be achieved unless the United States throws itself back into the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr. Blair is one Bush supporter who deserves all the election rewards he can get, and this is the one he's desperate for.

For many anti-Bush voters, the wounds of this rancorous campaign will be raw for a long time, and the idea of joining hands with the president will be a nonstarter. And 49 percent of the public expects those in the loyal opposition to continue taking principled stands against the administration. The challenge for them will be to pick their fights wisely.

To us, the central domestic issue of the next term will be the Supreme Court, and Mr. Bush's nomination to replace the seriously ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The president could pick a respected jurist of centrist temperament with a genuine belief in judicial restraint, or he could pick someone in the ultra-extreme school of Justice Antonin Scalia. Mr. Bush's social conservative base will be pressing in one direction, and will no doubt remind him that the election turned heavily on social issues, particularly opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

The evidence in the polling data that these social issues were crucial to Mr. Bush's win - and that the bulk of those infrequent voters who stood in line for hours to vote were evangelicals, not people against the war - is pretty inescapable. But we were struck by the broad majority of voters who told pollsters that they favored a middle approach on these issues: providing gay couples with the right to have some kind of civil unions, and guaranteeing women the right to legal abortions in most, if not all, cases. This page will never give up our commitment to women's right to reproductive choice, as well as full civil rights for people of all sexual orientations. But a leader who was prepared to make political sacrifices in order to stake a claim to that middle ground could be laying the foundation for a new national consensus that might finally bring the nation's social wars to an end.

Mr. Bush could be that leader. He could be the uniter he promised to be, then failed to become, four years ago. He could put an end to a period in national history when too many people go to the polls on Election Day convinced that victory for the other side would mean disaster for the nation. A lot of voters felt that way on Tuesday, and now Mr. Bush has the chance to show them they were wrong.