Second terms are a chance at redemption
and if President Bush is re-elected to a second term his experience
will be no different. One unintended consequence of the 22nd
Amendment is the opportunity for a lifelong politician to renounce
finally and completely political calculation. Ronald Reagan
floating a zero-nukes proposal to Mikhail Gorbachev at the
Reykjavik summit in 1986, Dwight Eisenhower dispatching the 101st
Airborne Division to Little Rock Central High in 1957 and Bill
Clinton’s decision to bomb Belgrade in 1999 are a few
examples of political courage that probably wouldn’t have
occurred in a first term. A second term with no prospect of
re-election gives a politician a rare luxury: the opportunity to do
what he thinks is right. Of course, most aspects of the second term
have continued to obey the master of political calculus. Either out
of habit or the allure of passing the presidency to his chosen
successor, the instinct to lean with the polls dies hard.

Zac Peskowitz

Bush is an unrepentant political animal. As John DiIliuo, the
former head of Bush’s faith-based initiative, told Esquire
magazine two years ago, “There is no precedent in any modern
White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a
policy apparatus … What you’ve got is everything
— and I mean everything — being run by the political
arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.” He
rejoices in the trench warfare of politics while the dreams of his
chief strategist Karl Rove to remake the Republican Party as the
dominant force in American politics suggest that the second term
may not be marked by policy purity. The hopes of this presidency do
not end in 2008.

Majorities in both chambers of Congress and the opportunity to
transform the U.S. Supreme Court will give Bush both a wide
latitude to achieve his policy goals and a historic chance to form
a lasting legacy. But there’s little evidence that Bush will
actually use this chance. The most provocative proposals of
Bush’s platform from four years ago have largely gone
neglected. The privatization of Social Security, major tax reform
and his faith-based initiative were essentially discarded. The need
to place foreign policy at the top of his presidential agenda can
explain part of this failure, but there is another more fundamental
reason for his refusal to bring his most radical ideas before the
Congress.

Despite the widespread belief that the Bush administration is a
radical clique of ideologues, Bush is content to adjust and bend
his beliefs for political benefit. Tragically, Bush has repeatedly
shown that he is willing to succumb to the pressures of political
expediency on critical issues. Despite his professed belief in open
markets and tax reform, Bush has implemented tariffs on foreign
steel, Chinese bras and Canadian lumber and signed a pork-laden
corporate tax bill. He is a fiscal conservative who has never
vetoed an appropriations bill, even during an era of structural
deficits. Time and time again, first principles are subordinate to
the crude calculations of focus groups, polls and swing states.

Bush’s second term agenda, as he presented it at the
Republican National Convention in September, is a haphazard
repackaging of the loose ends from the 2000 campaign. Some of these
policies attempt to solve the long-term structural challenges that
the United States faces as a result of the Baby Boomers leaving the
labor force, but Bush’s track record gives little evidence
that he has the courage to confront these problems with vigor.

The rise and continued strength of the contemporary Republican
Party is a story of ideas. Ideas that were deemed outlandish at the
height of the Great Society have slowly migrated to the center of
political discourse. The Republicans have built an idea factory in
Washington that Democrats have only begun to realize is a key to
the continued dynamism of their political rivals. There are lots of
ideas floating around the conservative think tanks and the halls of
Congress, from a national consumption tax to new policy levers to
reform the health care system, but it’s unlikely that the
courageous ones will find an ally in a second Bush presidency
— the stakes are too high and true victory is too far off in
the future.

 

Peskowitz can be reached at
“mailto:zpeskowi@umich.edu”>zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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