After Inauguration – will it get better from here on in?

by Stephen Tall on January 20, 2005

“Americans of every party and background, Americans by choice and by birth, are bound to one another in the cause of freedom. We have known divisions, which must be healed to move forward in great purposes. And I will strive in good faith to heal them.”

So said President George W. Bush today at his second inauguration to mark his first presidential election victory.

As is customary, the speech comprised fine words, stirring pledges, honed and polished for months by skilled professional writers. The whole day was meticulously planned; and only a liberal sour-puss would complain that the juxtaposition of presidential self-congratulation and escalating chaos in Iraq might jar a tad.

Of course, as President, Dubya has to pay lip-service to the traditional mealy-mouthed guff about ‘unity’ and ‘healing’. He doesn’t mean it. We know that. He knows we know that. He doesn’t care. But it would be inelegant to say: “I’ve been re-elected thanks to the votes of right-wing Creationists. I owe them big time. You liberal wieners had better get ready for the most vicious onslaught since Joe McCarthy.” Though he means just that. We know that. He knows we know that. He doesn’t care.

You get the picture.

And that’s reasonable, you might say. After all, he won this election fair and square, securing more votes even than the Gipper himself, President Reagan. Not only that, but he helped his Republican Party to Congressional and Senate victories too, a feat not achieved since 1934 by that great Democrat, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The mandate is Dubya’s, and his by right.

Well, yes, on one level. Because a single vote in a democracy is sufficient let alone the 55,000 Ohians who sealed the 2004 general election. But a mandate is about power, and power is a slippery, fluid, elusive commodity. So let’s get a few facts straight about what the 43rd President did, and did not, achieve on 11/2/04.

He did:
* win a majority of the votes cast, the first President since his father, George H. Dubya, in 1988.
* shore-up the Republican Party’s grip on rural and fast-growing exurban counties.
* demonstrate that ‘Reagan Democrats’ – the ‘soccer moms’ and blue-collar men – could still be won over by an appeal to culturally conservative, tough-on-security messages.

But:

* President Bush beat Senator Kerry by just 2.9 percentage points: 51% to 48.1%. That’s the smallest margin of victory for a re-elected president since 1828.
* every other president elected to a second term since 1832, save Presidents Wilson and Trueman, have at least doubled the margin that Bush had over Kerry.
* in the past century, only one other President, Woodrow Wilson, has been re-elected with fewer electoral college votes than Bush’s 286.

Does any of this matter, though? Isn’t this just a case of sour grapes, of desperate straw-clutching, a comfort blanket to snuggle up to during the four cold, miserable years that await us? Perhaps.

But there could also be a pointer to the future among this fact-blizzard, explained by Ronald Brownstein in The Los Angeles Times back on 15th November, 2004:

“Throughout American history, the re-election of a president has usually been a high-water mark for the president’s party. In almost every case, the party that won re-election has lost ground in the next presidential election, both in the popular vote and in the electoral college. The decline has been especially severe in the past half century. Since 1952 there have been six presidential elections immediately following a president’s re-election. In those six races, the candidate from the incumbent’s party has fallen short of the re-election numbers by an average of 207 electoral college votes and 8.4 percentage points in the popular vote.

“Because his margin was so tight, Bush didn’t leave the GOP with enough of a cushion to survive even a fraction of that erosion in four years. Even if the GOP in 2008 matches the smallest electoral college fall-off in the past half century — the 99-vote decline between Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 — that would still leave the party well short of a majority.”

There are other factors, too, which might mean Dubya’s victory is as good as it gets for the Republicans.

First, his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, will not be seeking promotion – the No. 2 usually has a built-in advantage when campaigning for the top job: rarely seriously challenged in the primaries, with ready access to an established fund-raising network, and a high profile. As yet, there is no obvious successor, except, maybe, the Governor of Florida, one Jeb Bush.

Secondly, Dubya’s first term may well come back to haunt him in his second. Most obviously – let’s hope not inevitably – Iraq could slip off the precipice on which its teetering, and descend into civil war. The US and its Allies would not be able simply to wash their hands of the bloodshed they’ve fomented. Active military re-involvement, not the disengagement for which even the neo-cons are now hoping (if only so they can flaunt their hawkish menace further afield), would be an unavoidable, and humiliating, outcome. An LA Times poll this week reported that a majority of Americans – 56% – said the situation in Iraq was not worth going to war for; 44% said the conflict had destabilised the situation in the Middle East compared with 23% who said it had helped; and 58% of people felt neither the US nor the insurgents were winning in Iraq.

However, and thirdly, the domestic agenda is by no means assured. Dubya has, somehow, to attempt to curb his reckless spending habits, and to staunch the spiralling budget deficit. At the same time, he is committed to a privatisation of Social Security, which will put a further dent, at least in the short-term, in federal finances. The same LA Times poll showed 54% of Americans disapprove of Dubya’s plans to introduce private investment accounts, most of them disapproving strongly.

Control of the White House, Congress and Senate present Dubya with immense leverage, a generational opportunity to carve the political landscape in his ideological image as clearly as Mount Rushmore.

He remains the most polarising of politicians, squeaking both his presidential victories, governing as if they were landslides. His approval rating continues to hover at 50%, remarkably low for a freshly re-elected second term President. Most of his Party are already looking towards the 2006 mid-term elections. He has three years until he becomes a lame-duck President. He’s enjoyed his day of glory. But the clock is now ticking.