Now Comes the Hard Part

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Clinton Rossiter begins his classic study of “The American Presidency” by describing the five constitutional functions of the chief executive, such as commander in chief. He goes on to identify five “non-constitutional functions,” beginning with chief of party.

In this category, George W. Bush just set the gold standard.

In the election of 2002, Bush recruited candidates for both the Senate and House, raised more money – $144 million – than even the greatest buck-raker of them all, Bill Clinton, and invested more time than any president ever. He defined the issues. He put it all on the line. And it paid off. Not since Teddy Roosevelt in 1902 has a GOP president gained House seats in his first off-year election.

Fortuna favet fortibus. Or, as the Brits say, who dares wins. Yet, as Wellington said of Waterloo, it was a damn near-run thing.

Had Gov. Roy Barnes not cut the Confederate battle flag out of the state flag, enraging Georgians proud of their rebel ancestry, he and Max Cleland might have survived. The boys in the pickup trucks killed them.

In Minnesota, Fritz Mondale seemed a certain winner until that memorial service for Paul Wellstone turned into the wildest wake since Gerald L.K. Smith jumped on the coffin of Huey Long to deliver the funeral oration and seize the crown of the dead Kingfish.

Yet, the sudden comparisons of Bush to the Gipper are premature. Reagan won landslides of 44 and 49 states. Bush shares with Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes and John Quincy Adams the distinction of having won the presidency while losing the popular vote. And Reagan’s accomplishments – inspiring a nation, reviving a dead economy, winning the Cold War – are the stuff of legend. Bush has a long way to go. And now comes the hard part.

Though Reagan lost 26 House seats in 1982, America was pulling out of the Carter malaise and beginning the longest recovery of the postwar. When he went home to California, Reagan could look back on six years of sustained economic growth.

Bush presides over an economy that has begun to stall for a second time in two years. Despite the Fed’s slashing of interest rates to levels unseen since the Eisenhower recession of 1958, the lead economic indicators are pointing south, and the Global Economy is being wheeled back into intensive care.

Japan is in its third recession in a decade. The Nikkei has lost 75 percent of its 1989 value. Nippon’s national debt is 140 percent of GDP. Japan’s banks hold bad loans estimated by some at $1 trillion.

The German economy, the third largest, has ceased to grow. China is booming, but China does not buy from us, China sells to us. Brazil, the biggest economy in South America, is $264 billion in debt and stumbling toward default. Argentina has already disappeared into the abyss.

New International Monetary Fund bailouts are inevitable. But this is not 1998 and the Asian crisis, and the U.S. economy is not the dynamo it was. In the late 1990s, America, with budget surpluses visible to the horizon, could take the lead in bailing out Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Russia, Brazil and Argentina. After they all devalued their currencies, we could open up our markets and let them dump at will into the U.S to earn the dollars to pay off their loans.

But now America is staring at endless budget deficits, and our trade deficit in goods just passed the $500 billion mark. The dollar is falling. We are reaching the outer limits on how much we can lend bankrupt regimes. We are reaching the outer limits on the imported goods we can take in to help Third World countries earn the dollars to revive their economies. We are running out of jobs and factories we can sacrifice to the Global Economy. The price of altruism is getting too high.

In the war on terror, the latest reports are troubling. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Al-Qaida is slipping back in. There is talk that U.S. forces may be needed to disarm the warlords.

In Morocco, Turkey, Bahrain and Pakistan, Islamic parties have swept to victory on a popular belief that America’s war on terror is a cover for America’s war on Islam. Neoconservatives howling for all-out war on “militant Islam” and Sharon’s braying about America taking down Iran next, only confirm Islamic suspicions.

While President Bush has full authority to invade Iraq, his war, unlike his father’s, will be opposed by Europeans and the Islamic world. Even now, it is difficult to see from which country Bush launches his invasion, who marches with us, how we get into Baghdad, how we get out.

Yet should Bush decide against war, the hawks will raise the specter of Neville Chamberlain and begin to whisper in the ear of John McCain. Rely upon it. The halcyon days of George W. Bush may be right now.

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