Let me acknowledge at the outset how wrong I was about this election. For many months I argued that an angry, energized, unified, and well-funded Democratic Party; a negative referendum on the president’s performance on Iraq and the economy; and the likely acceptance of Senator John Kerry as a plausible alternative for the White House would produce a modest but decisive victory for the challenger in the popular vote and the Electoral College. Since elections serve as our most fundamental instrument of democratic accountability, I reasoned that public dismay with the direction the country had taken at home and abroad put George W. Bush’s reelection seriously at risk.
The Bush campaign succeeded brilliantly in clearing these formidable hurdles by focusing public attention on the president’s reputation for strong leadership on terrorism, by aggressively challenging Kerry’s suitability for office, and perhaps most importantly, by using opposition to same-sex marriages and a masterful ground game to mobilize religious conservatives. Turnout was the big story of the 2004 election — with double-digit rate increases in the battleground states — but Bush, not Kerry, was the prime beneficiary.
The president has already used his victory and that of Republicans in Congress to claim a mandate for an ambitious domestic agenda, built around the idea of an “ownership society,” which features a fundamental restructuring of social insurance programs and the tax code. The agenda is designed to make individuals more responsible for their own retirement and health insurance and to shift taxation from investment and savings to consumption.
Both sets of policy proposals entail very difficult and controversial tradeoffs and raise the most profound questions about the social safety net and the relationship between individuals and their government. Yet neither has been subjected to serious policy analysis much less any semblance of public deliberation. As the Bush campaign was virtually silent on what promises to be the core domestic agenda of Bush’s second term, it is not credible to claim that this election certified public support for such ambitious policy changes.
During his first term the president boldly pushed a series of tax cuts and a war in Iraq without a shred of electoral mandate. The Republican majority in Congress, viewing itself more as an agent of the president than as a steward of an independent branch of government, largely acquiesced. Ballooning budget deficits and a chaotic situation in Iraq are attributable at least partly to Congress’s failure to do its job.
With the new political wind at his back, the president will demand that same level of support from Congress for his domestic initiatives. The Republican leadership in both the House and the Senate seem eager to deliver. Congressional Democrats, their ranks depleted and their spirits crushed after Kerry’s decisive loss, will be tempted to simply get out of the way. This would be a mistake, for themselves and the country, as would automatic opposition to any proposal advanced by the president. Instead, they should invite genuine discussion, public debate, and negotiation on key elements of the president’s agenda. And if their efforts are rebuffed, they should use every institutional means available to them to prevent the enactment of these proposals and to carry their differences with the president into the 2006 midterm election.