Victory Gives Bush Mandate to Unite a Divided Country

Posted November 3, 2004 at 3:48pm

President Bush’s historic victory Tuesday should dampen “Bush hatred” among Democrats, but the president also ought to realize that he has a big healing job to do. [IMGCAP(1)]

The Michael Moore/MoveOn.org crowd will never give Bush a break, but Congressional Democrats and the rank and file need to face the fact that Bush’s legitimacy is no longer in question.

He won the popular vote this time — a majority of it, in fact, which Bill Clinton never did — and increased his party’s control of the House and Senate, which hasn’t happened for 40 years.

Obviously, Democrats can’t be expected to cave in to every Bush proposal — especially if he tries to pack the Supreme Court with right-wingers — but they have to accept that the GOP has a mandate. Bush is the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 and 1936 to increase his party’s strength in Congress in two straight elections.

Republicans don’t dominate American politics the way Democrats did after the Great Depression, but Democrats have to respect the fact that the voters fully understood their choice in this election and they chose GOP leadership.

At the same time, Bush should realize that he governs a deeply polarized country. While he deserves credit for being the first president to exceed 50 percent since his father in 1988, Bush’s 3-point popular vote margin is small by recent historical standards. Excepting the unusual 2000 election, you have to go back to Jimmy Carter’s 2-point margin over Gerald Ford in 1976 to find a smaller edge.

He’d be well advised to look for ways to become the “uniter, not divider” that he promised to be in 2000, but rarely was in the past four years.

Bush has an agenda — make tax cuts permanent, reform health care, partially privatize Social Security, enact tax reforms to aid savings — which he has every right to push.

But he ought not bully these programs through Congress. Instead, he should reach out with magnanimity to Democrats and also to foreign countries, some of whose leaders must be apoplectic at the prospect that Bush will be president for four more years.

All this will require a major change of attitude for Bush, who has created the distinct impression that he doesn’t give a damn what anybody else thinks, here or overseas.

Hubris, as everyone knows, inevitably leads to a fall, and it often happens with second-term presidents and their aides — witness Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Clinton. Bush ought to look to his Christian faith and find humility and charity as well as the sense of mission that’s led him so far. This wouldn’t be weakness at work, as he should know, but strength.

There are two main reasons for outreach: The country is badly divided, and the tasks ahead are so big that a consensus is necessary.

Even though the numbers were different, the red-blue split in the nation was essentially the same as in 2000. Only two states that Al Gore carried in 2000 appear to have gone for Bush in 2004 — Iowa and New Mexico, both narrowly. Only one 2000 Bush state, New Hampshire, went to Sen. John Kerry.

And the exit polls, even though they were catastrophically wrong in projecting a Kerry victory early on, did demonstrate how divided the country is.

The 22 percent of voters who said that “moral values” were the top issue on their mind split roughly 80-20 for Bush. Those who named the economy, health care and education split for Kerry by similar margins.

Among those who approve of the Iraq war — 41 percent of the population — about 80 percent voted for Bush. The 47 percent who disapprove went 80 percent for Kerry.

The exit poll’s demographic breakdowns are utterly unreliable, but it’s virtually certain that church-going married white Americans — whom some have called “retros” — voted overwhelmingly for Bush, while seculars, singles, plus African-Americans — the so-called “metros” — went for Kerry.

Somehow, the nation has got to be brought together if it’s going to confront the huge problems of the future — especially winning the war in Iraq, facing down nuclear challenges in Iran and North Korea and retooling government programs for the 21st century.

The government needs to reform the nation’s retirement programs to sustain the baby boom generation, to help American industry and workers be more competitive and to retool the U.S. health care system so that it delivers better quality care at a lower price.

And, all of this needs to be done at a time of chronic budget deficits and increasing inequality of incomes and wealth.

I think Bush won this election on the basis of two big issues — terrorism and gay marriage — and by seeming to be a more decisive leader than Kerry.

He did not educate the public — though he tried — about the economic and social challenges ahead. And the issues of Iran and North Korea got shorter-than-short shrift.

Bush aides say he urgently wants to heal rifts with Democrats and his biggest disappointment as president has been the harsh tone of politics in Washington.

Now, he is unquestionably the nation’s dominant political figure. The public has given him decisive influence over the legislative branch and an opportunity to reshape the judiciary for decades to come. If he doesn’t work to heal the country, it can’t be done.