For Bush, no cakewalk in Congress
THE DAY AFTER HIS reelection victory, George W. Bush was both relaxed and ebullient. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it," he told reporters at a rare press conference. "When you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view, and that's what I intend to tell the Congress."
The president's good mood was understandable. He won reelection despite having an approval rating in the 49 percent range heading into Election Day, and with 56 percent of Americans believing the country was on the wrong track. He won the popular vote by 3.5 million votes, securing the first 50 percent-plus victory since 1988. And unlike in 2000, when his disputed victory was accompanied by GOP losses in Congress, the Republican Party gained seats in both houses of Congress, including an impressive four-seat gain in the Senate.
That Bush would react proactively and aggressively after winning a second term should surprise no one. He started his first term as a bold risk-taker, initiating major policy proposals as if he had won a landslide victory, while facing the most closely divided Congress in 70 years -- and he succeeded early on with both tax cuts and education reform. But even with thepopular vote win and the larger cushion in Congress, the sledding ahead will be very tough.
It starts with some of the endemic problems that plague every second-term president. A reelection victory is usually a vote for the status quo, not tumultuous change, and a second-term president's honeymoon is rarely long or intense. The window for major policy successes is short.
A second-term president is freed from the pressures and hassles of reelection politics, but he still needs to persuade lawmakers of both parties to fear him and take him seriously. And, of course, the battle for succession is already well underway by the time of his reelection. Many on the short list of potential successors -- such as senators Bill Frist, John McCain, and Chuck Hagel -- are party leaders the president needs to help implement his agenda, and inevitably his policy or political interests will clash with their need to boost support in the party's base or among groups of activists.
That ideological base is another headache that usually hits second-term presidents; after a successful reelection, the base sees no limit to its demands being met. Then there is the midterm election ahead. Congressional members of the president's party, knowing history, become increasingly nervous in that sixth year -- the term of art is the "six-year itch" -- since they are on the firing line, not him. So the president's hope of keeping his own party united behind tough-minded, politically risky and bold policy proposals dwindles, and the out party, desperate to regain some traction of its own, becomes increasingly tempted to find and exploit wedge issues for the elections ahead -- or to take advantage of a scandal to throw a president off his game.
This set of problems afflicted the second terms of Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton to varying degrees. Most of the structural dynamics that hit them are there to hit Bush. Will he weather them any better?
In one area, especially, Bush is different from most of his second-term predecessors. He has big goals, wanting not to be a caretaker but to affect major, even revolutionary change in the nature and role of government. His top two priorities, akin to his push in 2001 for big-time tax cuts and education reform, are sweeping tax reform and a transformation of Social Security. Given his larger majorities in Congress, Bush will be tempted to use an approach similar to the one he used successfully back then on tax cuts: push a tough bill through the House on a party-line vote and then pressure the Senate, including squeezing Democrats vulnerable in 2006 (like Ben Nelson of Nebraska) or in red states (like Max Baucus of Montana) to go along, or at least forego filibusters.
But unlike in 2001, Bush's bold plans are nowhere near ready to unveil, and were barely discussed in the campaign. Social Security reform -- which for Bush is built around diverting one-sixth of the payroll tax into private, self-managed accounts -- requires up to $2 trillion in transition costs to cover the revenue lost to the system. This will involve either adding as much as $150 billion annually to the deficit or coming up with huge budget cuts elsewhere -- at a time when $70 billion more for Iraq and the soon-to-burgeon costs of the prescription drug plan will magnify the deficit problem.
The president's discussion of tax reform was even more limited than Social Security -- no specifics other than saying that a national sales tax was an interesting idea worth discussing. With no detailed plans ready to take off the shelf, it will be many months before a major tax reform proposal is ready to be sent to Congress. In the meantime, a continued push by Republicans to make the tax cuts of the previous four years permanent will complicate overall tax reform -- which might well propose erasing some of those newly permanent tax cuts, and would thus be unacceptable to many conservatives who oppose tax increases in any guise.
If history is any guide, Social Security reform and major tax reform will almost certainly require broad bipartisan support. But getting that support will not be easy -- and it is not clear if Bush will even seek it. Certainly, his ideological base and his lieutenants in Congress like Tom DeLay, with their own post-election hubris, will resist strongly any attempts by the White House to meet the losers of the election in the middle.
Many Bush allies want to move quickly on Social Security, by proposing a straightforward and stripped-down bill that simply diverts payroll taxes into private accounts, with no changes on benefit formulas, age limits, or other components, and with no specific plan to pay for the transition costs. That approach would guarantee stiff Democratic opposition and some resistance from anti-deficit Republicans.
Alternatively, the president could go the bipartisan commission route. But that is a path he tried on this issue early in his first term, without success. All the members he appointed to the commission, including the Democrats, favored private accounts from the beginning, thus leaving it without broad credibility and no opportunity to build support.
There are other ways the president could begin his second term. Perhaps he'll be able to start with some issues that are left over from his first term, such as medical malpractice reform and his comprehensive energy bill, using his political capital to ram them through, and then using the capital replenished by those victories to build momentum until he's ready to fight the larger battles on Social Security and taxes.Perhaps he can avoid -- or will choose to avoid -- a bitter partisan battle in the Senate over a divisive and ideologically aggressive Supreme Court nominee. (He could do so easily by filling a Rehnquist vacancy with Miguel Estrada -- while nominating Stephen Breyer to be Chief Justice.)
Perhaps Iraq, following elections there, will recede as an issue and the president will be able to use his bully pulpit and other resources to put pressure on recalcitrant members of Congress to pass his ambitious domestic reforms.
But a more likely outcome is that both houses will continue to have deep partisan divisions; that the president's definition of bipartisanship will continue to be "I'll put out my policy plans, and if you are bipartisan you'll vote for them"; that Republicans will start to lose some of their impressive unity as 2006 approaches; that the president's core ideological base will grow increasingly restive; that bitter partisan clashes on judicial nominations will be the norm, with the fallout spilling over into other policy areas; and that Iraq and troubles in foreign policy will provide a continuing distraction from the domestic agenda.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is coauthor of "The Permanent Campaign and Its Future."