Bush Unbound

Republicans (probably) get an actual mandate


First, the crow—I predicted John Kerry would win 300 electoral votes, and tie George Bush with 49 percent of the popular vote. Also, unlike anyone else at the magazine, I voted for the Democrat, leaving my presidential picking record at a perfect 0 for 4.

Worse, I predicted 17 months ago that pushing for a constitutional amendment against gay marriage would specifically backfire on the Republicans, and cost them the White House. On the contrary, Bush bumped his popular vote percentage to a Clinton-topping 51 percent, Republicans increased their lead in both the House and Senate, and all 11 gay marriage-banning initiatives were headed for passage as the votes got counted in the wee hours this morning. Unsurprisingly, and certainly not for the last time, my finger is nowhere near the national pulse.

But I think we know enough about Bush's record, and about the conditions of his impressive (if electorally narrow) victory, to make three assumptions about what four more years will look like to those who actually believe in the virtues of limited government.

1) There is zero reason to believe Bush will ever listen to libertarians, about anything. Small-government types didn't get out the Republican vote; Evangelicals and other Christian conservatives did.

Libertarians have hammered Bush about stem-cell research, his staggering deficits, flippant eagerness to amend the Constitution, McCain-Feingold, the Federal Communications Commission, and the spectacular growth of government under his watch; all while noisily advertising their own political defections and/or flirtations with divided government. The Religious Right has been much more loyal, and exponentially more productive in delivering votes.

There is no practical reason why Bush should ever throw a bone to libertarians. And his well-demonstrated philosophical beliefs only seem to overlap with small-government advocates on the issues of taxes, the 2nd Amendment (though certainly not the 4th or 1st), rejecting international institutions, and cutting some regulation.

2) Energized Republican majorities in Congress will seek to re-write rules at the expense of the "obstructionist minority." I heard Republican congressmen use that exact phrase twice during Election Night.

And look for the congressmen to continue spending money like drunken sailors. Pork works, especially if there is no veto to scale it back, and now that this approach has been given a handsome popular-vote mandate, why change now? As the National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru put it before the election, "much of the country likes increased federal spending just fine… [T]he historic Republican commitment to keep spending down… stretches all the way back to January 1995, and all the way forward until the fall of 1996."

3) Bush will even feel less constrained in conducting an aggressive, occasionally go-it-alone foreign policy. In the words of Bush voter Stephen Green, "On the plus side, we'll stop jerking around with the insurgents in Fallujah. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and CENTCOM won't have to worry any longer about delicate domestic sensibilities. Finally, they'll be free to do the killing—and there's no nicer word for it—that needs to be done there."

France and Germany and Canada, all of whom are probably wretching as we speak, will be even more marginalized. Again, Green: "There will be no 'global test' to give the UN a near-veto on American actions. France, Germany, and the rest of the Axis of Weasels will know that no matter how much they carp, they'll still have to deal with Bush for four more years. I don't know about you, but the idea of Jacques Chirac having to make a forced-polite congratulatory call to Bush makes me want to light a Cohiba and pour another scotch. The fact that Chirac won't be speaking French with an American President makes me want to pour a double."

Bush has set a tone, which resonates deeply with his supporters, of bashing the contemptible Chirac more than the evil House of Saud, of offending the bumbling German chancellor but not the authoritarian Russian prime minister. And he has rarely found an international institution whose authority he respects.

Having governed this way and campaigned on this record, Bush's stylistic choices will probably solidify into a lasting geo-political rearrangement. And, unless it's accompanied by some creative cost-cutting and truly burden-sharing Coalitions of the Enthusiastic, it will prove ever-more expensive in American lives and treasure.

Speculation aside, the next four years will tell us what Republicans truly stand for, and whether limited government plays any role beyond tax relief. Bush has no re-election worries, no divided government, and (Ohio recounts willing) no whiff of illegitimacy surrounding his second term. The next two and probably four years will be as pure an expression of his governing beliefs as he could have ever dreamed. If nothing else, we can be thankful for the rare opportunity to see a president and a political party in such sharp, even naked, relief.