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
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."
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.
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
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
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.