The 2004 scenario

By David Limbaugh

Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, Robert B. Reich, speculated that President Bush must be privately concerned about Republican congressional victories because it will reduce his chances for re-election. I think the affable Mr. Reich is way off base.

In an op-ed last weekend, Reich argued that when the same party controls both branches, the ideologues in Congress will push the president “toward that party’s base.” Now that Republicans will be in control of both branches, the party will tilt further to the right and alienate swing voters, which are pivotal in presidential elections. President Bush will have to go along, according to Reich, “or risk the wrath of his Republican conservative base.”

Further, with Republicans in charge of both branches, they’ll have no one to blame when things go wrong. “And of course something’s going to go wrong over the next two years.” Besides, Reich concluded, voters favor divided government, which will make them less likely to pull the lever for Bush with Republicans in control of Congress.

I think Reich is wrong on a number of counts. Even if he’s correct that Bush will move rightward, it is not clear that he’ll turn off centrist voters. Regardless, whatever damage he would sustain there he would more than make up with the increased enthusiasm of the base. Recent Republican presidential losses (and near losses) can be chalked up as much to an uninspired base as any other factor.

More importantly, Reich is probably not correct that Bush will be coerced further to the right than he wants to be. Reich wrongly assumes both that Bush is very malleable and that the base is just waiting to bolt at the first sign of his moderation.

If there is one thing we all should have learned by now about President Bush, it is that he is his own man. While there may be some internal tug of war between him and congressional conservatives over certain issues, odds are that they’ll defer before he will.

Their support for him as commander in chief during wartime – and this war, in its many facets beyond Iraq, will inevitably endure beyond November 2004 – will trump everything else. And the same dynamic (the War on Terror) will ensure his support from the conservative base, even if he disappoints on domestic issues. The base will not countenance entrusting national security to Democrats, despite their frustration on other issues.

As for Reich’s familiar refrain that voters favor divided government, I disagree. But if I’m wrong, they still won’t want Bush’s authority diluted during wartime by the party that spawns anti-American pacifists like David Bonior.

Plus, most of the centrist or liberal portions of Bush’s agenda have already been enacted (such as his education bill and signing the campaign-finance reform bill). What remains is largely conservative, the part that Daschle Democrats have so far obstructed.

Bush intends to remove the sunset provisions on his income-tax reduction and estate-tax elimination. Voters will surely see this as imminently reasonable, not unduly conservative, and they’ll view opposition to it as indefensible. After all, many Democrats helped him pass these measures. The arbitrary expiration dates are just plain stupid and can be exposed as such.

The same thing is true for other Bush agenda items. Bush’s plan to allow taxpayers control of a minute portion of their Social Security funds will not be seen as extreme because it’s not. (Republicans can also counter that unions are investing their members’ pension funds in the stock market.) And I just can’t wait for Democrats to try to portray Bush as extreme for advocating a ban on partial-birth abortions. Even if he wisely pushes for a capital-gains tax reduction, too many middle-income voters own stocks and other capital assets to fall for the Democrats’ predictable class-warfare arguments against it.

If all else goes wrong for Republicans, they have one failsafe insurance policy. It is axiomatic that when liberals are out of power, they get nuttier. Democrats can run, but ultimately they can’t hide (their true colors from the electorate). And their true colors are far less palatable to middle America than mainstream conservatism.

I personally would prefer that Bush go further right than he’s bound to go – and I suspect the electorate would be just fine with it – but I doubt he will, no matter how much pressure from Congress. Either way, Democrats have their work cut out for them in 2004.