So much for sticking to the center

  Return with us now to those thrilling days of not quite four years ago, when George W. Bush was taking office and almost every veteran political observer — even including your humble agent here — predicted that his presidency would not stray too far from the ideological center.

We were, as fools so often are, basing our assessment of what would happen on what had happened earlier. Presidents as disparate as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter had won close elections, and therefore didn't stray too far from the political center.

Thus was born the conventional wisdom that presidents who do not win big do not have a "mandate" from the electorate, and therefore must restrain themselves. Governing with a tiny electoral margin, so said the conventional wisdom, created what the economists would call a marginal incentive to make nice-nice with the other party rather than pick fights with it.

Considering that Bush got fewer votes than his opponent, he might be said to have had an anti-mandate, calling for even greater restraint than Kennedy, Nixon and Carter had shown. To which the Bushies proclaimed, "Mandate, shmandate."

Well, no. They didn't actually say that word-for-word verbatim, as some senators used to like to say in the 1950s. But from the president on down, they acted that way.

This is no news in the Rocky Mountain West, where the Bush administration quickly moved to open up more land to gas and oil exploration, intensive logging and mechanized recreation. From its opening weeks, the administration tweaked or reversed altogether earlier policies, allowing more logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, more snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park and more coalbed methane production in Wyoming's Powder River.

In retrospect, this whole mandate business may have been something of a fraud, although President Kennedy seemed to believe it in 1960. That's why he quickly — and, as he later realized, foolishly — reappointed CIA Director Allen Dulles and FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover to new terms. He wanted to send the message that he was no radical.

But that was in another century and almost another country. This president can govern as though he won a landslide because his party runs Congress. Its majorities are small, but real. This means that, for instance, no congressional committee will investigate, complete with subpoenas and public hearings, the various decisions to skip public comment or ignore other procedures before opening tracts of land to development.

Last spring, for instance, the Forest Service approved an oil and gas drilling lease in the Bridger-Teton National Forest without going through the usual public comment process. That wasn't unambiguously illegal since there had been an environmental analysis of the area 10 years ago, but it wasn't standard procedure, either. In this case, perhaps because of complaints from Democratic Gov. David Freudenthal, the Forest Service backed down, at least temporarily. But some leases have been put on the fast track and not taken off it.

Freed of meddling from Congress, the administration can do largely as it pleases, especially because it faces little scrutiny from outside the government. The news media, so often (and somewhat accurately) accused of being dominated by a liberal mindset, have been cowed into acquiescing in or ignoring some of the administration's more aggressive moves. Oh, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and a few other newspapers have editorialized against some of Bush's natural resource policies. But there has been little response.

There is, after all, a war going on, and not going very well. There is the fear of another terrorist attack. There is unease about the sluggish economy and the growing number of folks who lack health insurance. The public, it seems, cannot pay attention to any more public policy issues.

Or maybe the increasingly concentrated media have decided not to pay much attention. More "news" organizations — all of cable TV news and the network morning shows — do not do news. They do niche marketing, and for reasons economic, political or both, they have decided that they will inform their niches about Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, and whether that truly dreary man in California killed his pregnant wife, not about plans to develop wild land in Colorado's HD Mountains, or the nomination to a federal judgeship of a lawyer who openly opposes church-state separation.

So it isn't that Bush has decided to pick fights as much as that he has concluded that there is no one who is able or willing to fight him about anything except the war, health care and the economy.

Of course, there are still political considerations. Last month, the administration put off its final decision on scuttling Clinton's "Roadless Rule," which protected some 57 million acres of national forest from logging and road-building. That decision had been scheduled for last month, but now the comment period has been extended to 12 days after the election. Should Bush win, the rule reversal will doubtless proceed, regardless of the comments.

And should Kerry win? Well, there's not a word on his Web site about the Roadless Rule. Still, his 20-year record in the Senate over natural resource and environmental matters is close to 180 degrees different from Bush's. But Kerry would not have as much leeway as Bush. A President Kerry wouldn't have to pick fights. His opponents would pick them.

Republicans are not only more united than Democrats, they are more intense, and they have no scruples about using their allies in the media. It isn't that Democrats are excessively burdened with scruples. But they believe in government. Some of them even believe in an independent press. So they restrain themselves, at least minimally.

Those Democrats, they are sooo 20th century.

Jon Margolis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes about politics from Vermont.