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Published: Sunday, 9/5/2004

What would second Bush term be like?

NEW YORK - In spite of their confetti-strewn, balloon-infested, anti-John Kerry, elephantine convention, Republicans still have not answered some important questions:

What would a second term for President Bush be like? Would he govern differently? Would the partisan climate in Washington change?

Aside from Mr. Bush's pie-in-the-sky to-do list for the next four years, there has been a dearth of commentary about how the next few years could shape up if he is re-elected.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card says that Mr. Bush, in a second term, would continue to be "thoughtful in making the tough decisions." Critics who say Mr. Bush shoots from the hip and would aim wild in a second term are wrong, says Mr. Card. He insists Mr. Bush "waits until he's ready, then he aims, then he fires."

Mr. Card said planning is already under way for a second term.

At the New York University School of Law the other day, assorted heavyweights met to ponder the possibility of four more years for the man from Texas who ran against Washington but has decided that life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not so bad after all.

David Gergen, who worked in the White House for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, noted that second terms in modern times have not been successful for any of the seven presidents who got them. William McKinley died. Woodrow Wilson's brain disintegrated. Dwight Eisenhower was sick and tired. Mr. Nixon resigned in disgrace. Mr. Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal and a White House engaged in internal warfare. Mr. Clinton had, well, you know. Even Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing strategy backfired; he also struggled with the end of the New Deal and was re-elected only because of World War II.

Mr. Gergen also pointed out that after an exhausting first term, second-term presidents run out of steam, their staffs burn out, and productivity wafts away like tumbleweeds. Not to mention that the out-of-office party gets obstreperous and starts using loathsome terms such as "lame duck." Some historians say arrogance creeps in as second-term presidents begin to believe their own press releases.

We know that Mr. Bush has big plans, although going to Mars seems to have been put on the back burner. Without backing away from his call for permanent tax cuts, Mr. Bush's push for Americans' "ownership" of their own retirement, health care and homes is key. This means that Mr. Bush will promote partial privatization in Social Security, which is an uphill fight. It means that the bitter climate in Washington is not likely to change one bit.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) said at the NYU forum that although Mr. Bush, as governor, was adept at getting along well with Democrats in the Texas Legislature and ran for the White House as a "uniter, not a divider," he is highly doubtful that the lack of comity in Washington will change in a second Bush term.

Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), a former attorney general in the Lone Star State, agrees. Mr. Bush is "a very competitive person, to the bone," he says, and wants to win on every issue. "Some think it's arrogance," Mr. Cornyn said, "but it's confidence. He's surrounded by strong people, the best and the brightest, and that will continue."

If re-elected, Mr. Bush will need the best and the brightest, but a new team is almost assured. Colin Powell, secretary of state, would almost certainly leave in a second term. Someone new at the helm of defense would also be likely. Tired of bashing their heads against the stone wall of recession, the current economic players likely would give way to a new team. Getting a new White House team in place takes time. And that means a new learning curve by key personnel on most of the major fronts.

The problems ahead are enormous - the rising deficit will make new spending increasingly impossible - and almost ensure presidential vetoes of new initiatives and contentious battles in many areas. They include energy policy; the war in Iraq, which is draining lives and dollars; the growing tension in the Middle East; the potential nuclearization of Iran and North Korea; China's alarming new spats with Taiwan; the continued reluctance of the economy to create jobs; burgeoning health-care costs, and, above all, terrorism. Putting new justices on the Supreme Court will be extremely divisive.

Four more years of "more of the same" is not likely. A second Bush term could be less successful, not more successful. Mr. Bush already enacted such priorities as his No Child Left Behind Act and his tax cuts. Because 60 votes are needed in the Senate to end filibusters, he has run into solid opposition on limiting lawsuits, medical savings accounts, and his faith-based initiative to let the federal government fund certain activities of religious groups. That opposition will not change, because Republicans are not likely to win 60 votes in the Senate. And if he wins in a close election similar to that in 2000, he won't have a popular mandate.

On foreign policy, Mr. Bush has not created the good will around the globe that his father did. To change that would require a major change in attitude and enormous diplomatic skill. And with military resources strained to the breaking point, Mr. Bush will not have the troops to fight on new fronts if more crises arise.

But most presidents still want that elusive prize, the magical chant in every political convention arena - four more years. And for the next 60 days that is Mr. Bush's daily mantra.



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