WASHINGTON -- Later than most two-term presidents, George Bush got his mandate. To be sure, he did get one on 9/11 from Osama bin Laden, but until Tuesday, not from the American people. The bin Laden mandate gave him freedom of action on a very large scale (two wars, the Patriot Act). With it he produced a remarkable success in Afghanistan and a still-unresolved war in Iraq. Above all was the one inescapable if unspoken fact, greatly overlooked in explaining this election: three years had passed since 9/11 and, against all expectation, we had not been attacked again.
This election was a referendum on Bush's handling of his first, accidental mandate. The endorsement was resounding. First, his Electoral College victory was solid. He went over the top without a single state being closely contested. He won all but three with a majority of 7 percent or more, and the others -- Ohio by 2.5, Nevada by 3 and Florida by 5 -- he won comfortably.
Second, there was the popular vote. Bush supporters should not gloat too much about the popular vote, given the fact that they lost it last time. Nonetheless, if you have already won the electoral vote, it is OK to talk about the popular vote as a kind of adjunct legitimizer. And a 3 1/2 million vote margin is a serious majority.
Third, he increased his party's representation in both the House and the Senate. The sweetest victory of all was the dispatching of Tom Daschle. Winning control of the executive while at the same time overthrowing, indeed retiring, your chief congressional antagonist enlarges the mandate. This will be particularly important for the main business of this Congress, which will be repopulating an aging and ailing Supreme Court.
What will Bush do with his mandate? Second terms can be very treacherous. They generally die of inertia. With the president a lame duck, there is not much on his agenda. There is only power, and power without purpose corrupts.
Which is why second terms are particularly prone to scandal. It is no accident that the major scandals of the last three decades have all happened to second-termers -- Nixon, Reagan and Clinton.
Bush will not choose inertia. Obviously on foreign policy that is not even an option, since he has the war on terror and a job to finish in Iraq. It is in domestic affairs, however, that he is likely to surprise.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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