How Will Bush Manage his Triumph?

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Big night: Bush celebrates GOP gains at his Crawford ranch

When George Bush came into office despite losing the popular vote, he took on the stride of a man who had won an impressive mandate. What will he do now that he has one? There may be too much over-reading of the 2002 election results, but there's no doubt it was a very good night for the 43rd President. He overcame 40 years of mid-term electoral tradition by increasing his party's share of the House seats and made history by re-taking the Senate. He helped rescue his brother's wobbly gubernatorial campaign and, in doing so, buried a lot of the ghosts of the Florida 2000 presidential recount. Oh, and he also left his opposition in chaos and disorder without looking like a political hack—keeping clean and crisp the wartime posture that has sustained his high approval ratings.

The President talks often and at length about his ability to spend his political capital wisely. It is one of the few areas where he will openly criticize his father, who had held too tightly on to his 90 percent approval rating following the Gulf War. During this campaign, Bush wrote a lot of political checks on his approval rating in the form of record fundraising and political travel, and the investment appears to have paid off.

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If President Bush had a good night, his political adviser Karl Rove had an even better one. His hand-picked candidates in Missouri, South Dakota, Minnesota, Tennessee and New Hampshire all won. There was some bruising of Rove's image after his candidate Richard Riordan lost the California Republican primary, but that's small beans now. Rove was able to even pick up little victories as well. The new senator and governor of South Carolina were both strong McCain backers in 2000 who boasted during the hard fought presidential primary there two years ago that they were the future of that state's political class. They are, thanks to George Bush's helping hand. Rove's goal of transforming the Republican party into a majority governing party for the new century got a big boost last night. As one Republican adviser joked last night, "He will be insufferable."

Now that the president has increased his hoard, the question becomes how skillfully Bush will manage his new stack of political assets: Will he over-read the results of the election in the manner of Bill Clinton in 1992 and Newt Gingrich in 1996? Or will he realize that the Democrats helped author their own demise and that being a good anti-terror president may not translate into support for his ideas on tax cuts or prescription drugs?

Right now, it's hard to say which way Bush will tack. What is clear, is that despite the enormous issues confronting America, from the sputtering economy to terrorism and war with Iraq, the electorate stayed home and didn't get very involved in picking the men and women who would go to Washington to wrestle with these problems.

Although the results don't appear to be a mandate for any specific set of programs on the Bush agenda, aides will certainly use the victory to claim voter pre-approval for every policy proposal by the administration over the next two years. And if Congress had already given the President a free hand on Iraq, the election result will have strengthened that hand. The White House hopes to have a UN Security Council by the end of the week setting Iraq a tough new ultimatum, capping his domestic triumph with a foreign policy victory. A strong UN resolution would signal a success in the slow game of diplomacy, which Bush was supposedly incapable of playing.

On the domestic front, the President will work hard to make his tax cuts permanent and will probably now succeed. Legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security will probably pass as Democrats cut and run on the issue. Many in the party already blame the Cleland loss in Georgia on the Democratic leadership's inflexibility on that issue. White House aides say that Bush will now return to the issues of compassionate conservatism and community character-building that appeals to moderate voters and attempts to capture the spirit of national unity in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

But how far will Bush go on the hot button issues, such as overhauling the tax code or rewiring the judiciary in the event of Supreme Court retirements? To date, the Bush team has kept its conservative political base happy but also known when to compromise on issues such as education and campaign finance. Bush's political advisers say that the president is not a counter-puncher but prefers to lead with a positive agenda. But during this election campaign, the Bush vision often had more to do with responding to security challenges from abroad than with any of his domestic programs. Yes, he had notable achievements on taxes and education, but the popularity and energy that Bush stoked to fire the Republican engine came from his stature as commander in chief.

The president can certainly claim a little favorable wind behind his plan to privatize Social Security. Candidates who ran on that plan, such as Elizabeth Dole and Lindsay Graham, did well, vindicating Karl Rove and other conservatives in the party have been fighting an internal party battle over whether GOP candidates should run on the issue. Many conservatives blame Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Tom Davis for watering down Bush's ideas, telling his candidates that running on Social Security private accounts was too risky. Whether or not Davis was right, it will be harder for him or other nervous Republicans to make that case now, although they may claim that the GOP did well in House races because a number of candidates stayed away from talking about private accounts. And those in the GOP who had complained that the Bush White House had, over the past two years, not been sufficiently sensitive to their electoral concerns are likely to find the White House even more likely to go its own way in the future.

The economy didn't bite as an issue which is an enormous relief for the White House. The President wasn't hindered by the corporate scandals or even the fact that he later trimmed the budget for the cops who were supposed to clamp down on wayward CEOs. Harvey Pitt made himself the first casualty of the election having handed in his resignation early in the afternoon, clearing up one of the administrations most glaring carbuncles.

The election may relieve some of the pressure for a shakeup of the Bush economic team, which advisers have been considering for months. But while the name plates may not shift quickly, more of them may change than before Bush's good night. Previously, advisers had worried that too many alterations in the economic team would look like an admission that the president's economic plans had failed, as Democrats maintain. But the margin of his party's victory, Bush may be less concerned by such perceptions.

Time for the big clich: Now comes the hard part. Everything you hear about how difficult it will be to govern with a majority is true. Deficits are already mushrooming and now Bush cannot blame the opposition for increasing spending. He must manage a tricky economy while pushing some costly new proposals. His Department of Homeland Security will be expensive; his plan to transform Social Security will cost at least $1 trillion in transition costs, according to the experts and any plans he has for overhauling the tax code will also certainly have big outlays associated with making the switch. We may even see Democrats running in 2004 as the party of fiscal responsibility.