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The Nation | Ronald Brownstein WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Bush Strives to Join Fraternity of Frustrated Two-Termers

August 30, 2004|Ronald Brownstein

WASHINGTON — Like second marriages, second presidential terms represent the triumph of hope over experience. Every incumbent since Herbert Hoover has sought four more years. And yet, after the experience of their predecessors, it is easy to wonder why they bother.

Bill Clinton was impeached in his second term. Richard Nixon would have been if he hadn't quit first. Ronald Reagan was wounded by the Iran-Contra scandal. Lyndon B. Johnson sank into the swamp of Vietnam.

Dwight D. Eisenhower had health problems and Sputnik. The high point of Harry Truman's second term was the day he won it in a stunning upset. After that, it was war, scandal and legislative gridlock. Woodrow Wilson suffered through World War I, the rejection of the League of Nations and a stroke. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt reached his lowest point during his second term, when Congress blocked his plan to stack the Supreme Court.

This is the fraternity George W. Bush is desperately fighting to join as the Republicans gather for their national convention this week in New York. It's human nature to seek validation for your work. But (re)election day is often the best day for a two-term president.

Most reelected presidents achieve at least some goals. Clinton built a budget surplus and reduced the national debt. Reagan simplified the tax code and pursued a rapprochement with Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Johnson accomplished plenty with his Great Society domestic and civil rights programs. But his experience was more like the conventional first-term honeymoon. Almost all his triumphs came within months of his 1964 landslide victory less than a year after the assassination of President Kennedy. After Johnson's initial legislative successes, Congress balked.

Notwithstanding these occasional breaks in the clouds, historians agree that almost all two-term presidents enjoyed their second much less than their first. James Madison was burned out of the White House by the British. Even the sainted George Washington faced criticism in his final months that, he wrote, "could scarcely be applied to a Nero, a notorious defaulter, or even to a common pickpocket."

Why have so many second terms come to grief? Presidents become arrogant and overconfident (Wilson, Roosevelt). Or they wear down and run out of ideas (Eisenhower, Reagan). Many of the believers who helped send them to Washington and launch their first term leave for cushier pursuits or demand grander positions in government. One day the president looks around the Oval Office and doesn't recognize a single face in the room.

Mostly, the odds catch up with reelected presidents. 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is a dangerous neighborhood: Bad things almost always happen to anyone who stays there long enough. The economy slows. International tensions rise. Appointees misbehave (see Truman). The president misbehaves (Nixon, Clinton). Embarrassing memoirs appear. Policies launched during the first term with all the fanfare of a newly christened ship inevitably spout leaks and become tempting targets. Voters begin grumbling for change.

There's no secret map for avoiding these rocks. Experience and common sense suggest that second-term presidents, like second-time spouses, have a better chance of success with clear goals and expectations. Ambition, of course, can be stretched too far -- overreaching has disrupted several second terms. But the more common problem has been drift.

As Bush unveils more of his second-term plans, he seems oddly vulnerable to both of these dangers. Most of the priorities he has presented -- modest tax credits for those without health insurance, more tax incentives for saving -- are the orphans that couldn't generate enough momentum to win passage in his first term.

In truth, the huge budget deficits produced largely by Bush's repeated tax cuts leave little room for new initiatives. The most important domestic proposal Bush has endorsed so far is to make his tax cuts permanent. "This is a fairly shallow pool of ideas Republicans have right now," says Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth.

The exceptions are the ideas so big they could expose Bush to the opposite risk of overreaching. In his acceptance speech Thursday, Bush plans to center his domestic agenda on the theme of reform. He's likely to call again for allowing workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market and to set as a second-term priority fundamental tax reform that would move the nation toward a flatter income tax or, less likely, a national sales tax.

All of these ideas can be structured to minimize short-term costs. And all would excite Bush's base.

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