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Published: Sunday, 11/21/2004

The beginnings of a new Bush era

The President doesn't start his second term for another two months, but that's a technicality. The first term ended this month and the new Bush era has already begun.

This new era will have new faces around the Cabinet table in places once occupied by John Ashcroft, Colin Powell, and a lot of other, faceless, Bush appointees. But it isn't only the new faces that will make up the new Washington. It's the new roles, too. Because the same old folks, even if they remain, won't be playing the same old roles.

Here's a look at the new roles for the new era:

George W. Bush. The President served his first term in a curious wrinkle of our system - a chief executive without the support of a plurality, much less a majority, of voters. No more. No more talk, either, about an accidental presidency. This one is no accident.

The President's first term was marked by an uncertain man taking a course of certainty - prosecuting a war on terrorism, striking into Iraq, following through with this campaign promises on taxes and the budget. Now the man is more certain and the policies less so.

We still don't know the ultimate direction of the war on terror, nor the trajectory of the American sojourn in Iraq, nor even what the President will do about taxes now that he believes he has a mandate to do something substantial. It wasn't until Ronald Reagan's second term that tax overhaul was won, and the 1986 tax bill remains one of the most unambiguous legacies of the 40th president. Foreign policy tactics come and go, but the tax code is forever, almost.

The President is more a man of action than a man of reflection, but sometime - perhaps in the next year or so - he will begin to worry about his legacy and his place in history. Most presidents do (though only Bill Clinton did so in public). And when President Bush begins to realize that the sunset on his presidency is approaching, he will begin to worry about how it will look in the sunrise of a new generation.

That's when things will get really serious, and really interesting, in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Toss all the preconception out the windows.

John F. Kerry. In his misery he may have forgotten an important fact: Some 56 million people voted for his conception of the American future, which is no small thing. (It is also more votes than Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton ever won.) The Democratic second-guessers will have a lot to say about him and his campaign, but every one of them would be praising the Massachusetts Democrat as a brilliant new visionary if only 70,000 people in Ohio had voted differently.

"I haven't given up the fight," he told me in a telephone conversation the other afternoon, and there's every evidence he hasn't. He'll have a new role in the Senate, not like Hubert H. Humphrey and George S. McGovern, who eventually wandered back to the chamber after their 1968 and 1972 defeats as wounded animals, but as the spokesman for the aspiration of 48 percent of what George S. Kaufman, in the days in which one dared put politics into song, called a "mighty nation."

No American politician has ever effectively played this role, including Richard M. Nixon, the only modern figure to lose a presidential election only to win one later. If he figures out how to do it, he'll be a trailblazer, and maybe a nominee again.

Bill Frist. Not a household name, and he'd like to change that. There apparently not having been enough presidential candidates from Tennessee lately (Howard H. Baker Jr., Lamar Alexander, Al Gore), Mr. Frist would like to take up that role. That would require him to change the role he plays as Senate majority leader.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Baker and Robert J. Dole were among the best majority leaders in American history and none of them won the presidency directly from the post of majority leader. There's a reason. The job of Senate majority leader requires patience, consensus, and reason. These are not attributes often associated with winning American presidential nominations.

Mr. Frist wants to be president, and he wants to continue as majority leader, so his challenge is clear. He must find a way to be associated more with the issues that animate the Senate than with the procedures that animate the chamber. And he has to do it within the next 18 to 24 months. Heart surgery (his last occupation) may be easier.

Harry Reid. You've never heard of him, or of virtually any other politician from Nevada. He's the son of a miner, a boxer, and, most improbably for the Democrats in their search for a fresh new image, a onetime head of the Nevada Gaming Commission.

Now he's about to be the Democrats' new leader in the Senate, replacing Tom Daschle, who was defeated in a bruising race in South Dakota this month. Mr. Reid and Mr. Kerry will be the most prominent voices in the Democratic opposition to Mr. Bush. They have much to decide, including whether they should compete with each other for the spotlight and whether they should be Mr. Bush's partner.

The short answers, of course, are no and no, but these days the Democrats are incapable of short answers - and, it seems, of fashioning new roles for themselves. The President has a lot riding on how he answers his challenges. But the Democrats, once they lick their wounds and banish a few of their advisers, have just as much.


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