Why Bush Has No Fear

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There is an unusual feature to the second Bush Administration that is extraordinarily important but has been almost entirely overlooked. For the first time in a half-century, a two-term presidency will end without sending out its Vice President to seek a mandate for succession at the next election. Vice President Cheney will not run for the presidency, and everyone knows it. When these eight years are over, the Bush-Cheney Administration will simply close up shop.

Nothing like that has happened since the 1950s. The five two-term administrations before this one were all followed by an election in which the big man's Veep sought the presidency on his own—a kind of third term as well as an implicit referendum on the previous two.

Consider: Vice President Nixon ran in 1960 after eight years of Eisenhower. Vice President Humphrey ran in '68 as successor to Kennedy-Johnson. Nixon's appointed Vice President, Gerald Ford, ran in '76 after the second Nixon term (although, because of Nixon's resignation, he ran peculiarly as an incumbent President). George H.W. Bush ran in '88 for what was essentially Reagan's third term. And Al Gore, try as he might, never did disconnect himself from the Clinton-Gore Administration in which he had served.

With Cheney's renouncing presidential ambitions, it is known in advance that the Bush Administration will die in January 2009 without an heir. What does that mean? Late in Bush's term, it will mean terminal lame duckness, even more powerlessness than most late presidencies experience. Who, after all, will be around later to reward and punish? No one.

But early in Bush's second term, the fact that Bush-Cheneyism will never have to seek popular ratification again gives Bush unique freedom of action. Which, in the hands of a President with unusually ambitious goals, will yield perhaps the most energetic—to some, the most dangerous—presidency of our lifetime.

Bush is fully aware of his situation. Hence the remarkable alacrity with which, after the election, he seized the moment. No two-month vacation to unwind. No waiting for the January Inauguration to set the agenda. He waited but two days to lay claim not just to victory but to a mandate.

Then, even more audacity. He not only claimed his mandate. He defined it right on the spot. Seizing the third rail of American politics, he promised to reform Social Security with, at minimum, partial privatization. He then added his intention to radically redo the tax code—which includes entertaining such ideas as entirely abolishing the Internal Revenue Service by going to a national sales tax. You cannot get more radical than that. His subsidiary aims, earthshaking in any other context but almost minor in this one, are kneecapping the lawsuit industry with serious tort reform and installing a conservative judiciary that will long outlive his presidency.

And within days of spelling out exactly what he wanted to do, he made clear how he was going to do it. Bush immediately went about seizing the commanding heights of his government. Bush's trusted consigliere, Alberto Gonzales, is sent to take over the Justice Department. The White House counsel post and the Education Department are given over to close Bush advisers. Most important, Bush turns over the State Department—foreign-occupied territory in the view of most White Houses—to his closest foreign-policy confidant, Condoleezza Rice. Then he gives her job, National Security Council chief, to her deputy. Not since Nixon moved Henry Kissinger from the White House to the State Department has a President so seized the foreign-policy apparatus.

You don't need the CIA—where Bush's new appointee is cleaning house in another hotbed of insurgency—to connect the dots: the President is taking control of his government. In a country where the bureaucracy is so entrenched that the government is often at war with itself, that is revolutionary. As is the man in charge. Bush is marshaling his forces for the single-minded pursuit of a foreign policy rooted in a radical idea: the spread of democracy, particularly in the Middle East. That means unrelenting pursuit of the war on terrorism and no flinching on Iraq. Those who thought a re-elected Bush might reverse course and seek an exit strategy have been sobered by everything that has happened since Election Day.

This is no accidental presidency. Bush intends his to be a consequential presidency. And he knows that in January 2009 it all ends. This is a man on a mission, indeed several missions. And very little time. If that scares the Democrats who tried everything to defeat him—and those around the world who were desperately hoping for his replacement and repudiation—it should.