George W. Bush is President -- Get over it

Posted: Nov 08, 2002 12:00 AM
George W. Bush is president -- get over it. Get over the references to him as "the president select," the jokes about elderly, Jewish Pat Buchanan voters, the stories about blacks being kept away from the polls by dogs. Get over, in short, all the Florida 2000 lore and bile, and deal with George Bush as the duly-elected president of the United States. Such was the essence of the electorate's message to Democrats. And thus the debilitating post-Watergate/Vietnam chapter in American politics comes one step closer to an end. It was an era marked by open warfare on the presidency as an institution, and a radical distrust of all the seats of executive power, from the president himself to the FBI to the American military. Democrats feasted on the destructive dynamic of this era, since it allowed them to undermine the executive branch at a time -- the 1970s and 1980s -- when it was largely controlled by Republicans. A permanent machinery was created to hunt for presidential scalps, from the independent-counsel law to ethics rules so fine-tuned (even "the appearance of impropriety" was verboten) that constant scandals were almost guaranteed to the adversarial press. The GOP too learned to love the post-Watergate/Vietnam style of politics, using it to destroy House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 and turning it against President Clinton with a vengeance. Republicans called the Clinton administration's smallest infractions "scandals," urged constant independent-counsel investigations and promoted the most poisonous speculation about Clinton's perfidy, including the possible murder of his deputy White House counsel. The cycle seemed set to continue, with the legitimacy of George Bush in question amid accusations that he "stole" the presidency in 2000. Democrats poured resources into the scene of the crime -- Florida and its gubernatorial election -- and attempted, in effect, to run on the Florida-vote controversy nationally as a prelude to the outright rejection of Bush's usurpation in 2004. But a funny thing happened on the way to the immolation of another presidency -- Bush's stunning victory. It was a frank rebuke of the Democrats' Florida strategy and all the accompanying criticisms of him that went to his legitimacy as a leader. The public might believe that certain Bush policies are mistaken, but not that he's a criminal usurper or that he wants to keep blacks from voting or that he is deploying the American military for rank political purposes. In other words, Bush is the president of the United States, with all the respect and benefit of the doubt due the holder of that office. This doesn't mean that political debate has ended, only that the institution is regaining its luster. This would be impossible with the lapse of the independent-counsel statute, since independent counsels essentially worked to make any president a criminal. No doubt, if one had been appointed to probe Bush's Texas business past, one of his former associates would have been indicted by now. But the most important change was 9/11, which brought a new sobriety about America's governmental institutions and an appreciation for their importance. Suddenly there was a debate about how to give the two primary villains of the post Watergate/Vietnam era, the FBI and the CIA, new powers and make them more aggressive. The U.S. military, which had been undergoing a steady rehabilitation since the 1970s, came roaring all the way back, with recruiters permitted back even at the Harvard law school. Finally, there was the role of Bush's character, his soft tones in criticizing opponents and his personal uprightness. This personal style served to bleach the political system of some of its poison in a way that Clinton -- whose lies incited his opponents -- never would have been capable. So, disagree with Bush -- yes. Destroy him -- no. We might not necessarily be witnessing the return of the "imperial presidency," but we are certainly seeing the re-emergence of the plain-old presidency. Welcome back.