A Mandate, Or A Second Chance?

This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

The largest flock of American voters to hit the polls since at least 1968, a group notorious for its intense and polarized partisans but perhaps more accurately represented by those voters moved by a quieter ambivalence and mistrust toward both parties and candidates, gave President Bush what he couldn't gain in 2000 -- a majority of the popular vote. It wasn't a landslide; it wasn't the call of a united nation. It was victory.

It vanquished the ghostly shadow of his father's loss in 1992. And he won Florida.

Will the President treat the reelection as vindication that bestows a great mandate upon his regime? Or, more modestly, a second chance?

Four years ago, George Bush won by a hair and a judicial edict. Yet he governed like a conquering hero. He was aided greatly by a group of disoriented enablers otherwise known as the Democratic Party.

Now, with a win in the popular vote and more Republicans in both the House and the Senate, it is hard to imagine the administration won't proceed as if it has a mandate with a vengeance.

But the George Bush of the 2000 campaign claimed he wanted to be a "uniter, not a divider." And in the debates of 2004, he did say that he regretted that he hadn't met this aspiration.

In 2000, candidate Bush spoke of pursuing a "humble" course for America in the world.

So there are some clues, however distant, that a less partisan and divisive second is possible. Not probable. There are surprises in politics, as we learned again last night. With reelection off the table, perhaps the president will make the bipartisan -- and diplomatic -- gestures in 2005 that he didn't make in 2001. Perhaps.

Hordes of Kerry supporters and Bush-haters no doubt feel despondent today -- sure the nation is doomed, misguided, duped and dumb.

How the Democratic Party responds to their disenchanted and weaker base in Congress will greatly affect the character of Bush's second term.

Recent history suggests that the Democratic Party in Congress will be accommodating to the president at first, then regretful and accusatory later (think tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, Patriot Act, war in Iraq).

The party out of Congress -- in consultants' offices, think tanks, small magazines, and dinner parties with the great benefactors of the 527s -- will seek reinvention, new ideas, scapegoats, more campaign contributions, earth tones, new primary rules and New Democrats. They will not understand why President Bush won. (If they could, he wouldn't have.)

The party is not long on presidential timber right now. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton are the names; it's not a long list, it's not a list that scares Republicans. The Senate has lost the likes of Daschle, Edwards, Graham and Breaux. Gephardt is gone from the House. Houston, we've got a problem.

America and its view of the world and its evils have changed greatly since Election Day 2000. Fair and square elections are no longer taken for granted. The monumental event of 9/11 still looms permanently. Osama bin Laden, a war on terror, a war on Iraq, and occupation. But the voting behavior of Americans did not change very much in those four years. It may turn out that Bush won only one or two states that Al Gore carried back in the olden days. Much has changed; much more hasn't.

Second terms have not been kind to recent presidents: Nixon and Watergate; Reagan and Iran-Contra; Clinton and Monica.

Pride goeth before a fall. Let's hope that a uniting, humble president believes that he has been given a second chance.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to
Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones.

By Dick Meyer