It has been 60 years since Republicans were this strong in Washington. While ideological conservatives do not make up a majority of the House or the Senate, they are a strong majority of the reasonably solid Republican majorities that do exist. President Bush should be able to get much of his program through, and Republicans will then be held accountable for it in 2006 and 2008. Previous legislative disappointments could be attributed to Democratic obstruction. There will still be Democratic opposition, of course, but the excuse will be less plausible.
But the suggestion is being made that for Bush to go full speed ahead with a Republican agenda would be somehow untoward. In the hours after it became clear that Bush was going to win reelection, some liberals complained that Bush was going to conduct himself as though he had won a landslide, not a majority of a few points. After all, he had governed confidently after winning with a minority of the vote last time.
After the 2000 election, I myself briefly took the view that Bush should respond to the closeness of the result, and the post-election wrangling in Florida, by leading a national-unity government. He should give Democrats important Cabinet positions, scale back his tax cuts, etc. A colleague changed my mind. Her argument was, essentially, that I was wrongly assuming that the country had voted for half a Republican government. Half the country had voted for a Republican government: a different thing. For Bush to move left would make some people happier, or at least less unhappy, about his presidency (although it could also project a lack of confidence in his own legitimacy in the office). But it would make many other voters a lot less happy. Why not give the country a taste of Republican governance, and see if they liked it enough to give Bush a bigger vote next time?
Accountability requires choice, and choice implies the exclusion of some possibilities. It can therefore be “polarizing.” Perhaps Bush could have governed in a way that left the country less polarized–although that is not as clear to me as it seems to be to others. But while gratuitous offense and incivility are always to be avoided, political harmony is not an important goal in its own right. It is not more important than setting pro-growth policies, defending unborn human life, or providing for the common defense. Conservatives who thought Bush should try to accomplish those goals were not wrong to pursue them even at the risk of inspiring some bitterness.
Even, yes, in a time of war. In thinking of models for successful wars, we probably think too much of World War II. Other wars have witnessed a lot more contentious debate about tactics, strategy, and war aims. Would Bush really have bought support for his strategy on terrorism by surrendering on taxes or judges? He surely believed that changing his economic policy would have resulted in a weaker economy, which would not have helped his ability to fight the war, even politically. If liberals maintain that they would have supported Bush more heavily on the war if he had met them halfway on these issues, they are saying more about their own pettiness than his.
When Republicans say that the American people have decisively spoken in favor of the president and his policies, and when Democrats say that it wasn’t as decisive as all that, they are both, of course, making moves in the mandate wars. Presumably intelligent Democratic politicians will know full well, when bills come before them, whether they are really running big risks in saying no to the president–mandate or no mandate. I’m not sure this “mandate” business means much: Look at what Clinton’s second-term mandate got him. (Okay, maybe hold that thought.) Or Reagan’s. Or Nixon’s.
The point can be put in a way that makes it sound menacing, or gloating, but it is also plain fact: The president doesn’t need a “mandate” if he has Congress, and this one does. Govern away.