Eighteen Months

Be careful what you want, goes the old saw. You just might get it.

Had he been one-term president, George W. Bush might have gone down in the history books as a latter-day Woodrow Wilson — a man who, in going to war in defense of democracy, had done the right thing, even though the effort did him in. Last summer, former Reagan speech-writer Peggy Noonan made a thoughtful case for the prospect of Bush’s defeat.

Perhaps history had been too exciting the past three-and-a-half years, she wrote: recession, 9/11, war, Afghanistan, Iraq, fighting with Europe, fighting with the U.N., to recall only the most obvious headlines. It was entirely possible that Americans now would seek a “return to normalcy,” in the person of John Kerry.

The American people might come to feel in the autumn that Bush had done “the job history sent him to do,” she wrote, and after the election send him home to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to await the verdict of history.

Shortly thereafter, Bush hired Noonan to write speeches for him. And last week the White House wordsmith presumably had a hand in declaring that, far from being fatigued by too much history, Americans had handed her boss a 51 percent-48 percent “mandate” for still more change. 

The way individuals succeed in becoming president has to with their skills at navigating the complex currents of their times.  But the way to understand a president is biographically.

And the fundamental fact of George Bush’s presidency is that his team now has avoided the fate his father’s team suffered, not once, but twice. That is, failing to be re-elected.  Dick Cheney (chief of staff) and the elder Bush (CIA director) were evicted from the White House when Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in 1976.  George H.W. Bush, and by extension, his troubleshooting son, were beaten by Bill Clinton in 1992.

No wonder, then, that Team Bush set out from the beginning of their coin-flip victory to achieve a second term — to the point of gambling that they could make short and victorious work of a pair of foreign wars.

True, they were also prepared to lose the election on principle. When erroneous exit polls gave the impression that he was behind on Election Day, Bush responded to the bad news laconically: “It is what it is.”

And while it may not seem so at the moment, John Kerry is the luckiest man in the world to have been refused the chance to drink from what China scholar Arthur Waldron, writing in the Providence Journal, has called “a poisoned chalice.”  Instead it is Bush who will have to sip an increasingly harmful brew.

For, having polarized much of the American electorate, Bush’s two bold first-term gambles — long-range tax cuts and the war in Iraq — have contrived circumstances in which his party can only lose.

There will be a momentary lift now that the election is over, of course. The Republicans will get a chance to reap the benefit of the administration’s deft timing of the business cycle.

The slowdown in growth that made the election such a cliff-hanger should soon abate (itself the result of an extremely shallow recession.) The next two or three years will see steady economic expansion, thanks to the well-timed stimulus of two major tax cuts, however otherwise unpersuasive the measures might have been on grounds of fairness or financial probity. (A ten-year tax cut for the well-to-do hardly qualified as short-term booster shot.)

In Iraq, too, the administration now may have a chance to weather the storm of violence that it created when it arrived in Baghdad last year with no real plan to maintain order.  The Washington Post, which has emerged as much the most level-headed of the American dailies in its coverage, last week described how the U.S. Army hopes to divide an insurgency that has grown steadily over time.

The core group, the Army says, is a loosely organized force described as “Sunni Arab rejectionists” and led by FREs — that is, former regime elements, mainly Army officers loyal to Saddam Hussein and by Ba’ath Party members.  The Americans now believe that plans to mount such a resistance had been part of Iraq’s pre-war preparation all along, Bradley Graham and Walter Pincus of the Post reported.

Additional elements include Islamic extremists of various sorts, both home-grown and recruited from abroad; a resourceful criminal class freed from prison on the eve of war; and an assortment of foreign financiers interested in fomenting Iraqi unrest, the Post reported.

Acting prime minister Iyad Illawi and his American allies were said to hope to drive a wedge between the FREs and the rest by offering enfranchisement in the coming elections to some or all of the rejectionists, and extirpation to the rest. Indeed, the current threat to batter Fallujah insurgents into the ground is seen as a ploy to persuade Sunni leaders to prefer suffrage and survival to defeat.

Could it work?  Of course it could — but even in the unlikely best case, only after thousands of lives had been lost and immeasurable goodwill squandered. 

In the economy, too, there is a crisis looming, though no one knows exactly when it will occur. The combination of tax cuts and spending increases of Bush’s first term have turned the surpluses of the final Clinton budgets into soaring deficits — and done nothing to address the long-term problems in funding the outstanding promises of the Social Security Administration.

Meanwhile, high oil prices have pushed the nation’s current account deficit — the gap between the value of exports and imports, which must be financed by foreign investment in US dollars — towards an all-time record of 6 percent of U.S. income.  Most of this investment is financing, not bricks and mortar but government borrowing.

At a certain point, these twin deficits are likely to cause a crisis, as foreign lenders begin to demand higher rates of return for the risks they are asked to bear. American citizens then will get a sustained lesson in exchange rates, interest rates and international economics — chances are, within the four years of George Bush’s second term.

(There are dissenters to this view, of course, prominent among them Harvard’s Richard Cooper, a long-time adviser to Democrats and former Undersecretary of State for International Affairs. With the U.S. accounting for something like a quarter of the world economy and half of its tradable financial assets, Cooper thinks the lopsided trade deficit reflects over-saving elsewhere, not over-consumption in the United States.  It could continue indefinitely, he says.)

Bush is known to have told supporters that he expects that, after 18 months, he will be considered to be a lame duck.  That’s when the second session of the 109 U.S. Congress will adjourn to prepare for the mid-term elections.

Between now and then, the re-elected president has set an extremely ambitious domestic agenda: the partial privatization of the Social Security System and an overhaul of the U.S. tax code.  He is expected to nominate of one or more justices to the Supreme Court and a large number of judges to lower courts.  A much more serious problem, soaring Medicare costs, has barely been mentioned.

Meanwhile, expect domestic protest to ratchet up a notch — or two.

Overarching all of it, of course, will be the outcome of the occupation in Iraq. More and more members of the “Coalition of the Willing” are expected to withdraw their token squadrons.  American’s disapproving European allies can be expected to remain distant and correct. Relations between the Bush administration and the United Nations will remain strained.  Only a new occupant in the White House can begin to repair relations between the United States and the rest of the world.

The key, therefore, will be the mid-term elections. Much depends on Congressional Democratic Party leadership during the next eighteen months. On long-term historical form, the Republican Party can be expected to lose seats (though the in-power party gained in each of the last two off-years, 2002 and 1998).  After that, George W. Bush will cease to be a force.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is among the senators up for re-election. If she defeats (or scares away) a Republican challenger — a strong Republican challenger, Gov. George Pataki, say — she will be well on her way to Democratic Party nomination in 2008.  (Can’t you imagine the stories about how she has grown in office? About how she began her political life as a Goldwater girl?)

Then the shoe will be on the other foot. The Democrats will have a vital and experienced candidate.  The Republicans will be divided among themselves, perhaps unable to present a united front.  All the current nonsense about the ineluctable advantage of the Red states over the Blue will fade away. And George W. Bush and the team that has dominated Republican Party politics since 1974 — Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest — will exit into History.