The Magazine

Easy Does It

Nov 25, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 11 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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TRENT LOTT, the Senate Republican leader, believes President Bush won a mandate in the midterm election. House majority leader Dick Armey says the Republican victories give Bush a realistic chance to reform the Social Security system in 2003. Sweeping free-market reform, long sought by conservatives, is "within our reach," he told reporters. "This is a time for boldness." Economist Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute declares, "It's morning again in America. . . . This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really force change." Even former vice president Walter Mondale, who lost the Minnesota Senate race, says the election was "a sweep" for Bush. "He will claim a mandate, and I think the public will accept that."

Whoa! Let's sober up about what Bush actually won on November 5 and what he should do about it. A broad mandate? Not quite. Spurred by the president, voters gave Republicans control of the Senate, a half-dozen more House seats, some state legislatures, and a wash in governor's races. That constitutes a sweet victory but hardly a mandate for Bush to clean out the backlog of Republican legislation and dormant conservative proposals. Instead, he should concentrate on the simple agenda that voters endorsed: win the war on terrorism and juice up the economy.

Simplicity is a virtue in White House (and congressional) agenda-setting. An uncomplicated program is easy to manage, easy to promote, and easy for the public to understand. We know this from the successful presidency of Ronald Reagan and the failures of Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Jimmy Carter. Reagan stressed two goals similar to Bush's. One was to defeat communism and win the Cold War, the other to revive a stagnant economy. For Reagan, the rest of the agenda, while not unimportant, was details, to be left for senior administration officials and congressional leaders to work out. The same is true for Bush. He has the ability to focus effectively--"like a laser," as Clinton might say--on whatever few issues he chooses. He's demonstrated that by his leadership as commander in chief in the war on terrorism since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Now Bush needs to focus on the economy as well.

But only on those two issues, the war and the economy. Okay, an occasional prodding of the Senate to confirm his judicial nominees wouldn't hurt. But remember what happened to Clinton, Gingrich, and Carter with their bloated and controversial agendas. They wildly overreached, and soon shipwrecked. The only major achievement to come out of the 1990s was welfare reform. Rather than success, Clinton produced a political backlash. Gingrich was driven out of office. As for Carter, he was said by a speechwriter to believe in 50 things but no one thing, and his agenda reflected that lack of focus. He lost the presidency in 1980. Bush could suffer a similar fate in 2004 if he tries to ram a vast conservative agenda through a narrowly Republican Congress.

What Republicans need is exactly what they were denied over the past two decades: a string of consecutive election triumphs that create an era of conservative governance in Washington. Reagan won in 1980, but suffered a setback two years later. He won again in 1984, only to see Democrats take the Senate back in 1986. The elder Bush's victory in 1988 was followed by defeats in 1990 and 1992, and the GOP landslide in 1994 wound up making Clinton's reelection easy in 1996 and giving Democrats the edge in 1998. Bush can avert such a reversal, but only by winning the war on terrorism, which includes the ouster of Saddam Hussein, and restoring a vibrant economy. Sure, partially privatizing Social Security would be nice. And its time will come--later.

An old saying in politics is you should "dance with the one who brung you." What brought Republicans success in the midterm election was a watershed event, September11, and the president's muscular response to it. Democrats never understood the terrorist attacks had permanently altered the political landscape. Bush did, and it led him to emphasize homeland security and national security in the fall campaign. Now, aside from concentrating on the war itself, he must complete the anti-terrorism agenda. He's won agreement, finally, on a Department of Homeland Security. A bill providing terrorism insurance is also crucial. But the war--against al Qaeda and Iraq--is most crucial of all.