How High Are the Stakes in 2004?

Not as high as you think

(Page 2 of 2)

Bush might choose the same path. After another squeaker election, Bush might, uncharacteristically, resist the temptation to overreach. Party identification is split, with perhaps a slight Democratic edge. Control of the Senate, the governorships, and the state legislatures is closely divided, with a slight Republican edge. The House would also be close if not for gerrymandering. If, in this 50-50 nation, a narrowly re-elected Bush and a right-wing Republican Congress tried to govern as if half the country did not exist, they would court a backlash that might marginalize themselves rather than the Democrats.

A Republican attempt at one-party reform of Social Security, the country's biggest and most cherished government program, could do to Republicans in 2006 what the attempt at a one-party health-care reform did to the Democrats in 1994—and then some. A one-party tax reform would turn into a Christmas tree as Republican senators demanded to be bought off one by one.

A second-term Bush might conclude that the strategic terrain no longer favored confrontation. Perhaps, to some degree, he already has. In his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention, Bush sounded like Reagan: "We resolve to be the party not of repose but of reform. We will write not footnotes but chapters in the American story." In his acceptance speech at this year's convention, he sounded more like Bill Clinton: "We will double the number of people served by our principal job-training program and increase funding for community colleges," and so on.

A new Bush? Not really. But when times change, politicians adapt. Barring another world-shaking calamity, in the next four years neither Bush nor Kerry will enjoy anything like the running room that 9/11 gave Bush in his first term. The 2004 election looks less like 1980 than like 1960, a year when the candidates differed more in style than in substance. Kerry's election, like John F. Kennedy's, would set a new tone, but not a new direction.

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