George W. Bush is a transformative president. Bill Clinton skillfully adapted to circumstances. George W. Bush -- clumsily in the view of his critics, but with confidence self-evident to those who watched his State of the Union with clear eyes -- sets out to transform America and the world. And is succeeding.
Consider Social Security, the centerpiece of Bush's domestic policy this year. The conventional wisdom is that change is impossible. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid says he has 45 votes lined up to filibuster any change. But Bush is working to change public opinion. The first polls taken after his speech show that he is succeeding.
Polls taken in Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida -- states Bush traveled to after the speech, all with Democratic senators -- will probably show the same thing. Bush's argument that the system is unsustainable and needs change is growing stronger with the public.
Democratic leaders' "just say no" response grows weaker. Its weakness has already been demonstrated by the defeat of former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota. It is held up to ridicule by The Washington Post editorial page. Charles Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where the first work on the issue will be done, is determined to get personal retirement accounts. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Max Baucus, is from Montana, a Bush state, and has worked with Grassley before. Favorable action is not assured. But it is possible.
It is possible also because Bush has already transformed the American electorate. On Election Day, John Kerry won 16 percent more votes than Al Gore did in 2000. George W. Bush won 23 percent more votes than he had in 2000. This is comparable to Franklin Roosevelt's 22 percent gain in popular votes between 1932 and 1936. FDR created a New Deal majority that hadn't existed before. Bush may have done something similar for his party.
Bush carried 31 states that elect 62 of the 100 senators. He carried approximately 250 congressional districts, to about 185 for Kerry (the final counts aren't in). Bill Clinton was re-elected with 49 percent of the vote in times of apparent peace and apparent prosperity -- the most favorable posture in which to run. George W. Bush was re-elected with 51 percent of the vote in times not of apparent peace and apparent prosperity. Clinton's 49 percent in retrospect looks like a ceiling for his party. Bush's 51 percent may be more in the nature of a floor.