- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

With today’s inauguration, President George W. Bush’s second term officially begins. Any president’s re-election sets up a second term cycle of ascension and decline.

A president is first reinvigorated by victory and then sapped by his inability to seek re-election. This flow and ebb of political tides is nothing new, the only arguments being limited to the extent of victory’s mandate and the timing of lame-duck status. So fast did speculation on both counts begin for Mr. Bush, that current conditions have an overlooked potential to make this cycle of ascent and descent especially pronounced. In fact, in the next four years, Washington faces a greatly exaggerated political cycle with highly charged policy issues.

The next two years are likely to be far more reinvigorating to this administration than the president’s 51 percent to 48 percent popular vote and 27 electoral vote victory would indicate. The presidential electoral map shows a much greater tilt toward Republicans than do the surface numbers. Mr. Bush won 22 states with 173 electoral votes by 10 percent or more. Sen. John Kerry won just five states (and the District of Columbia) with 63 electoral votes by 10 percent or more.

Adding the 173 and 63 together, we can effectively take these off the competitive field, thus leaving 302 electoral votes to be truly contested to reach the 270 needed to win. Despite just a 3 percent margin in the popular vote, the 2004 totals mean Republicans only need one-third of the competitive votes to win in 2008, Democrats need two-thirds of them. This underlying electoral landscape further strengthens the Republican hand coming into 2005.

Not only did Republicans re-elect an incumbent for the first time in 16 years but, as importantly, also increased their majorities in Congress. Republicans’ 10-vote majority in the Senate and 29-vote majority in the House give them their largest congressional margins since the 70th Congress of 1929. However, even these impressive totals obscure their real advantage, especially in the Senate.

Just slightly less significant than the president’s re-election was Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s defeat in South Dakota. The Daschle defeat highlighted the circumstance of senators running counter to their state’s presidential voting. These cross-color senators (red/blue senators in blue/red states) are a much greater liability for Democrats than for Republicans. While there are seven Republican senators representing blue states, 15 Democrat senators represent red states.

Closer examination reinforces the trend. Only two Republicans garnered smaller vote totals in their last election than Mr. Kerry did in their states in November; seven Democrats in their last election ran behind Mr. Bush’s November total in their states. As Mr. Daschle’s defeat underscores, cross-color senators have to be cognizant of this reality, which again favors Republicans.

Yet just as this administration will have more momentum going into its second term than is commonly perceived, the political tide’s retreat may be more pronounced than usual. In all second-term administrations, choosing a successor dominates its last two years. However, the 2008 election will be the most wide-open in more than a half-century. For the first time since 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower bested Adlai Stevenson, the 2008 election will not have an administration incumbent on the ballot. In each of the previous 13 elections, one of the two parties’ nominees was a direct legacy of the preceding administration — either as president seeking re-election or as vice president trying to succeed his president.

Under those circumstances the opposition is not only free, but impelled, to oppose the administration to accentuate its differences with the incumbents. In 2008, the Democrats’ incentive will be further heightened by their need to lessen the current presidential map’s electoral tilt against them. Yet unlike elections over the previous 56 years, even Republicans seeking the 2008 nomination will be less attached to the Bush standard because none will be a direct inheritor of it.

While Republican candidates will surely seek to claim elements they see as favorable, no one seeking the 2008 nomination will be compelled to support anything of the administration, in contrast to Al Gore in 2000, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Richard Nixon in 1960.

Underlying this increased political volatility, America will face policy decisions as important as any in decades. On the domestic front, Baby Boomers will begin retiring during the next president’s term. Fiscally, this will begin to put incredible pressure on all entitlement programs — the largest and fastest-growing portion of the federal budget.

Internationally, America will continue to be the only effective global actor. And cultural values, the 2004 campaign’s most charged issue, will likely be no less polarizing. All these will only further roil already rough political waters.

Like the tides, politics has its predictable cycles, particularly a second-term presidency. However, an unusual combination of factors presage a potential political storm not currently expected, nor often seen, in Washington.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget for President George W. Bush from 2001 through 2004.

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