The Magazine

The Beginning of the Bush Epoch?

From the December 9, 2002 issue: Conditions may be ripe for a long-term realignment in 2004.

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
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On the domestic front, Bush in his first two years has begun a line of argument that also appeals to the collective strength of the nation. He has called for a renewed commitment to citizenship through volunteer service. In a speech at Notre Dame University in the spring of 2001 he outlined a war on poverty and drug addiction designed to replace failed top-down bureaucracies with community and faith-based healing. He has endorsed fatherhood initiatives and efforts to strengthen marriage. He continues to articulate the view that immigrants bring economic strength and vitality to our national life. He has endorsed a ban on human cloning that respects the fundamental sanctity of the person. He has condemned failed education policies as perpetuating a "soft bigotry" that expects too little of young Americans in minority communities.

In response, Democrats have returned again and again, perhaps at times unconsciously, to their view of America as a collection of interest groups. They oppose the faith-based initiative at the behest of the gay rights lobby and educational choice on behalf of the teachers' unions. They defend sexual freedom and individual expression as unqualified goods. In contrast, President Bush is attempting to set forth a domestic agenda of national purpose founded on service to others and collective responsibility to address the social pathologies brought on by drug addiction, poverty, the dissolution of families, and the failed education system.

No one would be surprised, and few Republicans would complain, if the president and his team decided that winning a world war was enough to focus on in the coming two years. Our guess is that in normal circumstances the outcome of such a decision would be an Eisenhower-Reagan-style "lonely landslide" that would continue to see the nation closely divided in Congress and at the state and local level, perhaps with the mild Republican edge that emerged in 2002.

But the circumstances are not normal, and the decision is not exclusively in the hands of the president and his party. There is a compulsion among top Democrats to take their various disagreements with Bush to their logical conclusions, and an implacability in their desire to deny Bush even limited victories, particularly on domestic issues related to his vision of America.

Thus the bizarre self-remaking of Al Gore from the pro-growth, pro-defense New Democrat of the 1990s into the antiwar, anti-capitalist, anti-traditional-family Al Gore of his 2002 book tour may prove to be, for Democrats, not aberrational but central. If it is, and if the president responds by defending his vision and his program without apology, 2004 may after all be remembered as the Bush realignment.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.