In December 2000, when George W. Bush learned — after five extra weeks of suspense — that he had won a bare majority in the electoral college, despite losing the popular vote, he faced an immediate choice. He could husband his limited political capital, postpone proposals likely to engender strong opposition in a 50-50 Senate and hope for a greater public mandate in 2004 that would permit bolder policies in a second term. Or he could act as though he had won 100 percent of the power of the presidency, despite the muddled outcome of the race.
Bush chose the second route, because, as one adviser told The Washington Post, “if you don’t assert the sovereignty and legitimacy of your administration from the outset, you undermine your ability to achieve your goals later.”
As a consequence, Bush’s first term has had striking — sometimes radical — changes in the direction of national policy. Long-held assumptions about U.S. military and diplomatic strategy have been overturned, with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and bruised relationships with some traditional allies. At home, the budget has gone from large surpluses to larger deficits, while tax burdens have shifted and been reduced. The federal government has taken on a much larger role in setting directions for local schools and restructuring those that do not perform. The largest expansion in federal health benefits since the passage of Medicare in 1965 — provision of prescription drugs — passed Congress at Bush’s urging.
Whatever area one examines — environmental policy, regulatory policy, law enforcement and broad sectors of social policy — fundamental priorities have shifted at the direction of this president. Some of the changes are rooted in the conservative doctrines that have dominated internal Republican debates since the time of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Others reflect a distinct Bush imprint. What is beyond question is that he has turned out to be a very consequential president, an outsider who has not hesitated to challenge conventional Washington ways of thinking.
As former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) says: “You have to admire the sheer brute courage of the guy” in upsetting the status quo on so many fronts at once. But Gingrich acknowledged in an interview that “it’s an unfinished job. If the Democrats come back and sweep the November election, and change the tax policy and the national security policy, you could by the middle of next year look back and say this was a detour.”
The realization that Bush’s policies are at stake on Nov. 2 is one reason the partisans are so fired up, and why voters are telling pollsters that they see this election as more important than most. The changes Bush has engineered — from the first application of his preemption doctrine in Iraq to his insistence on measuring the basic language and mathematical skills of every elementary school student — have altered millions of lives and touched communities everywhere.
But because those two massive ventures — like many of Bush’s other initiatives — have yet to play out, it is hard to know how history will judge the Bush presidency. During his term, the public has been up and down on his performance. At first, voters were mildly impressed but not certain. One month after he took office, his job approval in a Washington Post-ABC News poll was 55 percent, with 23 percent disapproving and 22 percent undecided.
In early September 2001, Bush was still rated positively by 55 percent of those polled, but the disapproval number had grown to 41 percent. Then came the terrorist attacks, and Bush’s approval scores soon soared as high as 92 percent. They stayed at more than 70 percent for the next year and then began a slow slide downward, interrupted briefly during April 2003, when the U.S.-led coalition was winning in Iraq. For the past three months, the poll has shown slightly more disapproval than approval for Bush.
All this has left the Republican Party in a somewhat weakened public position. A mid-July survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the GOP lost the advantage it held earlier in the Bush years on handling Iraq and foreign policy in general, and on managing the government and that the GOP had fallen behind the Democrats on the economy and a wide variety of domestic issues. Pollster Andrew Kohut said that terrorism stood out as the one issue on which Republicans significantly outdistanced their opponents.
Assessing Foreign Policy
When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, Bush had no choice but to make terrorism his top priority. What otherwise might have been an administration focused on domestic policy became instead a wartime government.
Conservatives with a sense of history recognize that, as large as the domestic initiatives have been, Bush’s reputation will depend largely on the outcome of his international policies. Michael K. Deaver, a senior aide to Reagan, said, “Obviously, he will be judged by the whole 9/11 terrorism thing.” Jack Kemp, who helped launch the tax-cutting drive in 1978 that Bush has continued during his presidency, said: “Iraq will be debated for the next 100 years, but his policy of trying to promote a more democratic Middle East will be the single biggest criterion by which he will be judged. Obviously, the jury is still out.”
Looking at current public opinion polls, some Democrats express skepticism that Bush has truly put his stamp on the Republican Party — and its future. Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, pointed out that “aside from the president, the Republicans who are most in demand are John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani.” The Arizona senator, the governor of California and the former New York mayor have not been shy about voicing their differences with Bush on issues such as tax cuts, the environment, abortion and gay rights. But all three are campaigning for his reelection, and all three have prominent speaking roles at the Republican National Convention.
As yet, Bush has made no provision for anointing a successor who clearly shares his philosophy of government. Vice President Cheney is assumed to be too old to run for president in 2008. White House insiders speculate that Jeb Bush, now the governor of Florida, is well-positioned to continue the dynasty, but other Republicans forecast a wide-open battle for the next nomination, whether or not Bush is reelected.
What History Will Say
The uncertainty about his legacy is mirrored in the wide range of judgments on whether Bush has burnished or tarnished the GOP’s reputation. Lee Edwards, a veteran conservative writer and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, places Bush squarely in the Goldwater-Reagan tradition, with echoes of even earlier party heroes such as Robert A. Taft. “Tax cuts, a strong defense and an emphasis on traditional values have been at the core of the Republican Party,” Edwards said in an interview. “When Bush speaks of Social Security reform, he is echoing what Goldwater said in New Hampshire 40 years ago.”
But Edwards is not ready to enshrine Bush as a peer of Taft, Goldwater, Reagan or Gingrich, architect of the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. “The attack on 9/11 was a defining moment for him,” Edwards said, one that changed the course of the Bush administration.
Like every other wartime president, Bush has presided over the growth of government. According to the Office of Management and Budget, discretionary budget authority — the amount the president proposes and Congress passes each year — grew from $644 billion in President Bill Clinton’s final year to $873 billion last year. That is a 35 percent increase in three years.
That has been a bitter disappointment to the libertarian wing of the GOP, reflected in the strenuous opposition to Bush’s Medicare expansion and his No Child Left Behind Act from a minority of Republicans. John Samples, a senior official at the Cato Institute, said that the victory Gingrich led in 1994 “opened the window to a reduction of government or at least its radical reform, but Bush has shut it.”
From his libertarian perspective, Samples said, Bush’s expansion of domestic programs and aggressive promotion of democracy abroad makes him “a combination of Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson. . . . There is an argument that a Bush defeat would not be the worst thing for the libertarian side of the party.”
Few Republicans share that view; instead, they voice a widespread belief that Bush needs a second term to lock in his changes — and to tackle such unfulfilled promises as the remaking of the Social Security system.
Gingrich, a historian by avocation, says that James K. Polk, who fought the Mexican War and annexed Texas and the Southwest, was one of the few one-term presidents to leave a large legacy. “It’s the momentum of eight straight years in one direction and the fact that the American people have reaffirmed that direction” by reelecting a president that elevates him to a place in history.
The former House speaker says Bush is “as good a strategic decision maker as Reagan was — and a better manager. But he does not have the same ability to bring it all together in a compelling case and to stick to that case.”
Deaver, who helped shape Reagan’s image, thinks that Bush has been underestimated. “When you look at Republican strength in Congress and the states, it’s the highest in history,” Deaver said. “Bush’s persistence on issues such as the [gay] marriage issue has solidified the Republican base. That may well allow him to win a second term.”
Other conservatives say that Bush’s understandable preoccupation with the international agenda after Sept. 11 has kept him from accomplishing the full measure of what many of them had hoped to see. But a second term might allow him to take another run at those targets.
In a speeches during the past month, Bush has begun to outline elements of a second-term agenda, pulling them together under the rubric of “an ownership society.” The agenda includes several items that were part of Bush’s 2000 campaign but were shunted aside after Sept. 11 — plus some issues that appeared to be too expensive or politically controversial for consideration. Included are initiatives to foster homeownership, medical savings accounts, liberalized college savings plans and individual retirement savings accounts.
“During the next four years,” Bush said in a July speech, “we’ll help more citizens to own their health plan, to own a piece of their retirement, to own their own home or their own small business. We’ll usher in a new era of ownership in America, with an agenda to help all our citizens save and build and invest so every person owns a part of the American dream.”
That promise excites people such as Kemp, who sees in its elements an opportunity to build support for the Republican Party among minorities, while meeting the criticisms of the more libertarian wing of the party. “Combined with a strong commitment to reform the tax system, it could recover the ground we’ve lost with the libertarian right and give low-income and minority workers a real stake in our society,” he said.
Of all the goals, none is more important in the balance sheet of history than restructuring Social Security. Of all the New Deal-era innovations, none is more deeply embedded in American life than the federal pension and disability benefit system. Bush has proposed — and conservatives ardently desire — to allow younger workers to divert a share of their payroll taxes into individually owned and controlled retirement accounts. But the practical and political barriers to changing Social Security are enormous. The “transition costs” of financing benefits while launching the individual accounts would last for years and could total $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion.
The first-term deficits are almost certain to persist through the next presidential term, and some economists say Bush would face a hard political choice between his hope to make the first-term tax cuts permanent and his desire to launch the new savings program.
With Iraq and Afghanistan remaining active military fronts and with challenges visible from Iran to North Korea, it is not clear whether the wartime president Bush has become would have any more leeway for major domestic initiatives in a second term.
Were Bush to succeed — were he able to reverse the landmark measure of the New Deal and remove the linchpin of the Democratic political coalition — his place in history would be assured.