Majority Win Could Make Second Term More Partisan

Times Staff Writers

Four years ago, George W. Bush won his first term with fewer votes than his opponent, but governed as if the nation had granted him a clear mandate to pursue conservative policies.

This time, Bush can claim a solid mandate of 51% of the vote, which made him the first presidential candidate to win a clear majority since 1988 -- a point Bush aides made repeatedly Wednesday.

So although the president reached out to defeated Democrats in his brief victory remarks Wednesday afternoon, his aides and supporters were quick to suggest that his bipartisanship might not go far -- and that they expected Bush’s second term to pursue even more ambitious conservative goals than the first.


“President Bush ran forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation’s future, and the nation responded by giving him a mandate,” Vice President Dick Cheney said as he introduced Bush at the victory celebration.

“This is going to be a more creative and more controversial term than the first term,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.

In his first term, Bush pursued domestic policy goals that were already popular: tax cuts, education reforms and Medicare expansion. But for his second term, the president has chosen more controversial -- and politically more difficult -- priorities: revamping the federal tax code and restructuring Social Security, the most popular government program in history.

In foreign affairs, Bush entered the White House in 2001 with relatively modest aims, but his presidency was redefined by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that year. Officials and experts said his second term was likely to be dominated by the unfinished business of the first: the war in Iraq, confrontations with Iran and North Korea, and the continuing struggle against Islamic terrorists around the world.

All that, Gingrich and others said, could make Bush’s second term an exception to the normal historical pattern of recent presidencies -- at least in the scale of its ambitions. Instead of a lame-duck second term of small ideas and small achievements, Bush has staked out a list of ambitious, difficult goals.

“People say, ‘The country’s divided; shouldn’t he be less ambitious?’ ” said Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform. “No. This is a Republican-majority country. He will govern as aggressively as in the first term.”


The president described his second-term program Wednesday in broad-brush, detail-free terms: “We will continue our economic progress. We will reform our outdated tax code. We will strengthen the Social Security for the next generation. We will make public schools all they can be....We will help the emerging democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan so they can grow in strength and defend their freedom, and then our servicemen and women will come home with the honor they have earned.”

But it will be no easy task to simplify the tax code’s tangle of provisions that benefit powerful and entrenched interests, or to remake Social Security, a program long called the “third rail of politics” because members of Congress believed touching it would be fatal to their careers.

“It’s always easy to give more money away,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), referring to Bush’s first-term tax cuts. “Now what the president is going to have to do is challenge the Congress, lay out the facts and challenge his own party and the Democrats.”

In his first four years, Bush cut taxes at a time when the economy needed a lift and the federal budget enjoyed a surplus -- initially, at least. He expanded Medicare benefits the way members of both parties had been advocating for years. And he tried to improve education at a time when many Democrats agreed that standards needed to be raised.

By contrast, his second-term agenda includes more risk for politicians -- and asks for more sacrifice from voters.

Simplifying the tax code is a Herculean political task because so many powerful interests are poised to defend every tax credit, deduction and subsidy in the Internal Revenue Code. The changes Bush seeks in Social Security -- allowing workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in private accounts -- would strip some future retirees of government guarantees in exchange for the possibility of greater rewards, and could cost trillions of dollars to implement.


Republicans close to the White House say Bush is determined to leave a revamped Social Security system as his legacy. They describe him as inspired both by statesmanlike zeal to solve a long-neglected problem and by ideological desire to replace the government-run safety net with a system that relies on individual choice and responsibility.

Bush also has pledged to cut the federal budget deficit in half in five years, a goal that would be difficult to achieve even without costly military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some analysts have wondered whether Bush’s focus on the war in Iraq and the battle against terrorism will sap the energy he can devote to domestic policy initiatives. Gingrich argues that Republicans cannot afford to give short shrift to domestic issues if they hope to become an enduring majority.

But Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) warned that the presidential campaign’s focus on international issues meant that the election didn’t guarantee Bush a foundation of support for his domestic agenda.

“He’s got no mandate on domestic issues per se,” Kyl said. “Yeah, [voters] knew he wanted some tax reform and Social Security reform, but I don’t think he can contend the election was a mandate to do that.”

On Social Security, Bush will have to convince deficit-conscious lawmakers -- including many Republicans -- that the estimated $2 trillion in transition costs over the next decade will be offset by long-term savings.


The task should be made easier by the GOP’s gain of four seats in the Senate, and especially the defeat of Senate Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a powerful obstacle to Bush in the past.

But others are skeptical that after a bitter campaign, Bush will succeed in attracting significant support from Democrats. “Is it realistic to think that, after this nasty election, he’s going to get everyone in the room and say let’s hold hands and reform Social Security?” a Republican lobbyist asked. “I don’t see it.”

In foreign policy, Bush’s first term was dominated by the war against terrorism and the decision to invade Iraq. His second-term agenda, one official said, could be described as “pretty much the same -- only more so.”

Some Republicans close to the administration are forecasting a more moderate, or at least more pragmatic, tone in the second term, if only because -- with more than 140,000 troops committed to Iraq -- the administration’s ability to undertake military intervention elsewhere faces practical limits.

“The Iraq experience has had a sobering effect,” a former administration official said. “I would expect the second term to have a more pragmatic foreign policy. They’re going to concentrate on getting Iraq right and on moving forward with the Middle East democracy effort. Those are the significant things they need to leave behind.”

One possible policy shift, he said, would be a decision to increase the size of the active-duty armed forces -- a proposal Democratic candidate John F. Kerry made but Bush resisted.


Bush may come under pressure from his own Republican allies in Congress to expand the armed forces -- and to make other changes. Some Republicans are already talking privately about lobbying for the replacement of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, long a lightning rod on Capitol Hill.

“I feel very strongly they have to have a total, honest reappraisal of what went on in Iraq,” said Gingrich, who says he supports Rumsfeld. “It was an avoidable mess. Mistakes were made. Not to force that lesson-learning is inexcusable. Congress has to insist on it.”

Other issues that will remain high on the priority list include Iran and North Korea, two countries that the administration believes have been developing nuclear weapons. In his first term, Bush tried -- with other nations -- to pressure both countries to abandon their nuclear programs, but with little success.

“I would expect tough rhetoric [in the second term], but no one should expect tough action,” said James Lindsay, vice president of the private Council on Foreign Relations. “Iraq was an easy target, but Iran and North Korea are hard; unlike Iraq, they both have ways to hit back.”

In both domestic and foreign affairs, officials and others said, Bush is likely to try to move fast to make headway on his priorities, before he is seen as a lame duck.

Bush appeared to be wasting no time. On the morning after a long election night, his spokesman said, the president telephoned every newly elected Republican in the Senate -- both to congratulate them and to let them know he would be asking for their votes.


Bush told at least one of them, Sen.-elect James DeMint (R-S.C.), that he was impatient to turn his agenda into policies and laws.

“Now is the time to get it done,” Bush said, according to his spokesman.


Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.


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What Bush wants


Domestic issues


Social Security

He has called for a major restructuring of the national pension program to let younger workers invest part of their Social Security tax payments in individual investment accounts. He has pledged that older workers could stay in the current system with no reduction in benefits.


He has proposed a sweeping simplification of the federal tax code but has presented no specific plan. He has called on Congress to make his first-term tax cuts permanent before they expire in 2011.


He says he wants Congress to expand his first-term education reform plan, designed to hold schools more accountable, by expanding standardized testing at the high school level.


He has proposed tax credits to help low-income people buy health insurance or fund individual Health Savings Accounts.


Foreign policy



He has pledged to keep U.S. troops fighting in Iraq until newly formed Iraqi security forces can stabilize the country in the face of a growing insurgency.


War on terror

He has vowed to continue efforts to destroy Islamic terrorist organizations and encourage democracy in predominantly Muslim countries.


He says Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons and wants the U.N. Security Council to consider imposing economic sanctions.

North Korea

He says he will continue multilateral talks to persuade North Korea to halt its development of nuclear weapons.


He has increased military spending by about 40% over the last four years, but has resisted proposals to increase the size of the active-duty armed forces.


Source: Times reporting