The '02 congressional elections turned conventional wisdom inside out. All politics is supposed to be local, but this time local went national, and the results gave George Bush, who put his prestige on the line in a way unprecedented for modern Republican presidents, a national mandate. The dumbo president proved his smarts. Americans said they liked the man in the most eloquent language of all.
Nevertheless, it's still not clear to everyone that the Republicans are now capable of building on the mandate, of standing tall, of rolling with the tide, of fighting the tough battle, of winning the war. Choose your cliché. You don't need the long view of history to observe that Republicans have often wasted opportunities when the going gets tough and the carping begins.
The Democrats are suddenly in disarray, shooting at shadows, arguing with each other, and even Bill Clinton, who campaigned everywhere and lost everywhere, doesn't know what to say. Neither do the new president's critics abroad. Nowhere have the critics been silenced more, if only for a time, than at the United Nations. The unanimous Security Council resolution demanding that Iraq give up its weapons of mass destruction, and instructing its inspectors not to put up with any funny business, says it all.
With that unanimous result, the regiments of America bashers were at last deprived of the only note they know how to play. The apparent initial reluctance of the president to include the U.N. in his plans translated at last into the perception of strength. He was flexible enough to give the United Nations the appearance of his doing what the skeptics wanted him to do, to give their position of reluctance and caution a chance as long as he held on to the card he can play if (and more likely when) reluctance and caution fail.
George Bush was "gracious" to the Democrats in their loss and steadfast in giving the United Nations one last chance to confront Saddam Hussein with a warning of "zero tolerance." The president cleverly retained his option of saying what the U.N. resolution really means. He has demonstrated that he knows he can't let anyone talk him into backing away from his commitment to do something at last about Saddam Hussein.
The man the wiseacres insisted was dumb showed that he has mastered the domestic universe as well. The conventional wisdom that economic issues are always more important than foreign-policy ones in local elections was demolished. Individual insecurity in the face of terrorism rendered moot the unions' argument that homeland-security jobs must be civil-service jobs, with all the attendant restrictions on who can be hired and when they can be fired. The president is likely now to win the argument that national security takes priority over business as usual.
There's always tension between politics and policy, strategy and substance. What the president demonstrated in the autumn campaign was a willingness to invest his political capital. If he had lost, the damage to his authority would have been great, but he didn't, and that's no longer interesting to speculate about. What emerges instead is that the president read the electorate and voters' concerns better than the Democrats did, that he reflected their sentiments better than the Democrats did.
Pundits have had fun with animal metaphors in describing the way George Bush tapped into the American psyche. Barbara Amiel in the London Daily Telegraph draws on theories of ethnologist Conrad Lorenz who identifies "imprinting" in the animal kingdom, where the first authority figure in the vision of newly born goslings imprints himself on their consciousness and encourages them to follow his lead.
Taken too far, of course, in that formulation Americans become a motley crew of quacking ducks and jackdaws waddling behind the president. Jeffrey Bell in the Weekly Standard prefers the "hedgehog" analogy, of a man who is not easily distracted from the task at hand and who brings all his energy to focus on it, burrowing deep with discipline and what my mother used to call "stick-to-itiveness."
For months leading up to the election, dozens of street corners in the nation's capital were decorated with party animals, donkeys and elephants each weighing between 700 and 900 pounds. Some reflected themes derived from the political parties, but most were tailored to an artist's unique vision.
The most beautiful donkey was covered with blue mirrors, allowing anyone looking at it to see himself in his own image, albeit a blue one. My favorite elephant was a silver one, decorated in a prickly coat of four-inch nails, as if to say, "life is hard, but don't confuse me with Dumbo. I'm prepared to do battle." Politics, like art, is in the eye of the beholder.