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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

In the Nov. 15 issue of Newsweek, in an essay hopefully titled "A President Who Listens," columnist Anna Quindlen lays out the case for President Bush to make changes in his second term -- mainly, to work hard to be a conciliatory figure, someone who, having achieved the Holy Grail of presidential politics (a second term and a like-minded Congress), might now be inclined to work hard at binding up the nation's wounds, closing the bicolor divide that defines these United States today.

All props to Quindlen (a former denizen of The New York Times who, like your humble narrator, moved on to something better), but even a casual reading of the Bush mindset, and particularly the Bush zeitgeist, will point to how unlikely that sea change is.

"Bush rarely strayed from the reservation of in-house affirmation or cheering crowds," Quindlen writes. "He made up his mind and it stayed made. There was thus no premium and no point in listening to those who had other points of view. ... A second term is terrifying to his opponents, who believe he will use the freedom of incumbency to do everything from loading the [Supreme] court to reinstating the draft ... He could consider how bitter the division in this country are and vow to try to mend them. Lest this sound too altruistic, he might also remember that being a two-term president who leaves behind a nation in which half its citizens can barely tolerate the other half is a surefire way to leave alegacy of colossal failure."

Quindlen's noble, hopeful viewpoint, however, is likely to run up against the political realities of the moment. The most pressing of those realities is the national state of war. We're a country at war right now, for better or worse, and that fact alone has been at the root of the Bush administration world-view. Since so much of the Bush world-view stems from that easy, comfortable us-against-them polarity, the available evidence suggests that it's likely to be a waste of time waiting and hoping for any fraction of a wholesale repudiation of his previous identity.

All year long George Bush campaigned with a pitbull zeal against his immediate opponent, Massachusetts senator John Kerry. But in the wider sense Bush was campaigning against a stronger, more problematic opponent. Bush was campaigning against change, against deviating from the course he set this nation on in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His intransigence, his unwillingness to shift from that course in the slightest, has come to be seen as a strength -- maybe the strength he could most effectively bring to bear against opponents foreign and domestic.

Change is contrary to his world-view, his and that of the proxies and handlers he works with. For George Bush to, effectively, perform an about-face, for him to morph into Ted Kennedy and make sweeping changes in his policies and initiatives at this point would be to contradict much, if not everything, he stood for throughout his first term. It would amount to an admission of failure -- an admission that, considering his still narrow but decisive-enough victory at the polls Nov. 2, would be not only a political blunder but also a sound repudiation of the 59 million red-state voters that put him over the top.

There's probably no better, more convincing proof of Bush's intention to stay the course than Condoleezza Rice, now the National Security Adviser and soon to be Secretary of State. Rice has always been one of the administration's most resolute hawks, and from her new perch she'll be in an even more solid position to impose her policies and her will on an administration already in lockstep with her thinking.

George Bush won't make any wholesale changes in his strategy for two more fundamental reasons. First, such changes are beyond his capability. We've known since 2000 that George Bush set great score by the idea of having an idea and sticking with it, no matter what. Despite his reputation as a Texas governor who was willing to reach across the statehouse aisle to achieve some degree of bipartisan consensus, George Bush as president has consistently defended his own personal focus on a national objective, and how best to achieve it.

That focus was reflected in his steadfast resistance to the Kyoto Accords, his antipathy to the United States being subject to rulings from the International Court in The Hague, his ringing rebuff of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Any hope of him offering an olive branch to his opponents here and abroad, of rejecting his own still-emerging conservative stance and becoming the Kum Ba Yah president, went out the window on Sept. 11, 2001. In those terrible moments, George Bush's constitutional conviction of a binary, dualistic, us-vs.-them sense of the world, maybe to that point still subject to suasion, was vindicated, confirmed and hardened forever. It was ratified again on Nov. 2, 2004.

Why should he throw over such proof of his rightness, his certainty, even if he could?

The second reason, stemming in some ways from the first, is more frightening. George Bush doesn't really care. He stormed back into power on Election Day having made pledges to a base of supporters, and he intends to honor those pledges, and by extension his own sense of mission, no matter what. Opponents be damned. The act of listening presumes that one cares about what somebody else has to say; the Bush doctrine has convincingly shown that is not the case. With no further political horizons to survey, why on earth would he even care about changing now? George Bush can't see the divisive course he has set this nation on. With such short-sightedness as a big component of his own identity, there's no real hope of any centrist transformation when this administration has made so many formidable gains by appealing to the starker, grimmer, more ideologically animated aspects of the national identity.

Anna Quindlen is of the era of the baby boomers, those Americans born between 1946 and 1964, that demographic for whom rock & roll was not just diversion but cultural signpost. Quindlen no doubt remembers that Who classic "Won't Get Fooled Again" -- maybe she (like the rest of us) copped a buzz in a long-ago dormitory room and shouted the song's signature phrase -- "Meet the new boss ... same as the old boss!" Pete Townshend was a more astute political thinker than he knew when he wrote it. That phrase expresses what we're likely left with in these edgy days: a president who, emboldened by a political victory narrower than a mandate but broader than a photo-finish, will stick to his guns. "America has spoken ... I gained political capital," he said after the election, "and I intend to spend it." We face a greater danger than before, if that's possible to imagine: a president of the United States with nothing to lose.

Tony Blankley was right. Fat Tony. What a guy.

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