Probing the mystery of Bush’s second term.
Jay Walljasper | Jan/Feb 2005 issue
One of my professional sidelines through the years has been trying to make sense of American politics—both to people outside U.S. borders and those within. If you think that sounds easy, take a look at the subjects with which I’ve wrestled.
I started with the Iran-Contra scandal, which raised huge Constitutional questions but never even dented Reagan’s popularity. Next was President Bush I, who had 91 percent approval ratings after the Gulf War and was booted from office a year later. Then came the curious cases of Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Monica Lewinsky, Clinton’s impeachment, and the 2000 election—including the results in Florida, the Supreme Court’s role, and how a man could win the White House with 500,000 fewer votes than his opponent. This led, of course, to President Bush II and the volatile political currents of post-9/11 America.
In the weeks since the 2004 election I have read mountains of political analysis, scrutinized heaps of electoral maps and quizzed the brightest people I know looking for nuggets of meaning that could explain what happened in this country of mine. Journalists, like doctors and professors, are trained to have an answer for every question. But I must admit that this time, I’m stumped.
In my despairing moments, I nod “yes” to the thesis of two Economist editors, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who argue in their book The Right Nation that America is fundamentally a right-wing society. Notions of economic justice or environmental sustainability, which I hold dear, are as out-of-step with the American culture as low-carb diets would be in Italy.
And then, as my optimism rallies, I remember that Bill Clinton won the favor of most Americans, even after his sexual antics in the Oval Office. But Clinton successfully convinced many voters he was a conservative in the same way that George W. Bush swayed millions into thinking he was “compassionate”—not once but twice.
We may never fully understand what tipped the election in Bush’s direction last November. Most of the explanations I’ve offered through the years for Democratic defeats (low voter turnout, gross disparities in campaign contributions, namby-pamby middle-of-the-road strategies that alienated young, low-income and minority voters) don’t apply this time.
I deeply worry that an emboldened Bush Administration will plunge us deeper into global warfare, further ravage the environment, and hand over even more of our resources to the wealthiest coterie of Americans. Early indications show this is exactly what Republicans plan. And Karl Rove, Bush’s trusted advisor and the most brilliant political tactician since Machiavelli, may be the man to make this all happen.
Yet, when my hopes resurface, I note that Bush’s victory in the popular vote was the tightest of any re-elected president in American history. And that’s not taking into account any possible vote suppression and fraud. This is clearly no mandate for a radical right-wing agenda.
It’s comforting to remember that second terms fall notoriously short of expectations. Our last three re-elected presidents suffered major scandals, with one resigning and another being impeached. And Bush must contend with a Republican party showing increasing signs of inner turmoil. He owes huge political favors to moderates who campaigned for him, like Arizona senator John McCain, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also to hardcore Christian crusaders, who turned out millions of voters. Meanwhile, discontent with the Iraq war is spreading from left to right, as more influential conservatives question Bush’s foreign policy.
Looking back on other chapters in American politics, there’s only one thing we can count on over the next four years: anything can happen.