George W. Bush will accomplish one of two things over the next four years. He will either betray and enrage his base of militant Christian fundamentalists, or he will scare the bejesus out of everyone else.
If Bush is politically astute--and, amazingly enough, this remains an open question--he will attempt, as successful politicians do (think Bill Clinton), to triangulate between the demands of his base for radical, right wing revision of the economic, social, and political landscape and the fear of change and suspicion of government that infects a wide swath of the American electorate. But given the way he won this election, by pandering to his base constituencies over his first term (and by offering them the promised land of unchecked right wing power during his campaign), and given the deep polarization of the two parties, he will fail.
The president has a full plate of headaches to deal with over the next four years, almost all of his own making. First and foremost, there is Iraq. Once upon a time, the Bush administration believed invading Iraq would be a cakewalk. When that turned out to be spectacularly wrong, they believed capturing Saddam would restore order there. When that was equally untrue, they asserted that the transfer of "sovereignty" to a hand-picked Iraqi government would end the mess. Wrong again. Now they contend that the pacification of Fallujah, followed by (perhaps rigged) elections will set things right. We'll see, but the Bushies track record so far does not inspire confidence.
It became clear over the course of this campaign that John Kerry had no good ideas, beyond vague calls for better management and a promise to hold a summit with recalcitrant allies, for fixing Iraq. That his Iraq plan did not pass the smell test is not his fault; no one appears to have any good ideas for fixing Iraq. In this sense, the Democrats have dodged a bullet (or an IED) by losing this election. If Kerry had won, he would have been blamed, given public perceptions of Democratic national security weakness, for the likely failure to secure Iraq. From the get-go, this was Bush's war of choice. It is only fair that he suffer the consequences of his own overreaching. If the Iraq adventure fails, or drags on interminably, he, and not Kerry, will suffer the ugly political fallout. And that is likely to come sooner rather than later. The Democrats will be around in 2008 to pick up the pieces.
On the domestic front, Bush is claiming a mandate for his radical agenda of further dismantling of the New Deal welfare state through more tax cuts, reform of the tax code in a regressive direction, and the partial privatization of social security. None of these policy pronouncements are particularly popular. The political potency of further tax cuts is largely spent. Comprehensive tax reform is likely to anger a pinstriped army of Republican business lobbyists, unless it preserves their hard-bought loopholes, in which case it will be manifestly unfair. Social security reform is necessary, but Bush's privatization mantra becomes wildly unpopular when voters start to learn its details (which will include either benefit cuts, higher taxes, or a massive trillion dollar plus increase in the deficit, or some combination of all three). And Bush will pursue this agenda at a time when the federal government groans under the weight of the eye-popping deficits he has already created. Dick Cheney may believe that deficits don't matter, but it is unlikely that the financial markets will agree.
Given his expanded majorities in Congress, Bush will likely get most of what he wants--and therein lies another danger for him. If he governs as his base demands, his second term will be a disaster. His zealously uncompromising fundamentalist supporters are loudly demanding a far-right Supreme Court that would be wildly out of step with the American middle. Though a majority of Americans support choice, Bush's base is determined to overturn Roe v. Wade. Moderate Republicans like Arlen Specter, terrified of a massive backlash if Bush's Christian soldiers get what they want, is already feeling their sting. Karl Rove made a Faustian bargain with these people. It worked in the short term, aiding Bush's reelection. Now they want payback, and Bush will be forced to deliver.
Let us hope so. The greater the uncompromising hubris of the right wing, the more problematic, and politically perilous, Bush's second term will be. All of the Republican talk of a mandate-echoed by a subservient national media--is a fatal misreading of what happened on November 2. The fundamental post-welfare state reality is that there are two minority parties in America, divided mostly by culture: the Republicans, who hold the ideological allegiance of roughly a third of the electorate, built on a core base of white evangelical Christians and lower-middle class voters, particularly in the South, and the Democrats, who have roughly the same size following, drawn from the well educated and minorities, particularly on the coasts. The party that wins elections is the one that induces greater motility in the non-ideological third in the middle.
Given the lingering echoes of post-9/11 security-consciousness, Bush did that this time, but just barely. A shift of less than 70,000 votes in Ohio, and there would be no talk of a Republican mandate.
By energizing the forces of reaction, George W. Bush has sown the seeds of defeat for his party. In the long term, demographics are in the Democrats favor, as John Judis and Ruy Texiera point out in their fascinating 2002 study, The Emerging Democratic Majority. Progress, characterized by economic development and electoral growth, will come from what they call ideopolises--post-industrial New Economy metropolitan areas like Seattle and its inner suburbs--which vote increasingly Democratic (although 9/11 has temporarily halted the shift). There you have it: a disastrous second Bush term combined with the growing power of the cities. The trends are in our favor. Faith eked out a win over reality last week, but give it four years. Reality will bite back. In that, at least, we can all have faith.