Richard Reeves

And Now: Bush Three

NEW YORK -- Now Bush Three. The third Bush presidency began this week with President George W. Bush heading for Europe to assure the leaders of the Old World that, in the words of one of his own men, "He is not a shallow, arrogant, gun-loving, abortion-hating, Christian fundamentalist Texan buffoon."

Bush One, the 1989-1993 term of George H.W. Bush, will be little noted nor long remembered for anything much more than the father's war games in the desert. Bush Two, the first 143 days of George W. Bush's term, will be remembered for at least 10 years. That is the effective period of the tax cut the son brilliantly tricked the Congress into passing by clouding the minds of a few moderate Republicans and a few moderate Democrats -- the adjective means different things to different parties -- and making them believe that he had somehow won a mandate in an election in which he lost the popular vote.

Bush Two was almost Lincolnian, fooling most of the Congress for some of the time -- just long enough to enable him to shape the governance of the United States for a decade or more by throttling its revenues for those 10 years. Bush Two's hand was quicker than a congressional mind. The British magazine The Economist gave him due credit last week in an editorial: "Granted Bush was pushing his luck. ... Still, it is hard to imagine that he would have got so far so quickly if he had yielded from the start." Then it added: "Bush's best days may already be behind him."

Bush Three will probably be a wash, or a failure. Perhaps not even close. The lesser days began on Tuesday when George W. went to Europe, knowing only a bit more than Christopher Columbus did when he went the other way. The new presidency will be a learning experience.

For a while most analysis of the change in Bush power will focus on the defection of Sen. James Jeffords from the Republican Party, an interesting shift that gave Democrats control of one of the houses of Congress. But the Jeffords jump was only a readjustment -- a symptom, not the cause, of the reality of American and world politics at the beginning of the 21st century. Bush Two ended dramatically precisely because of its success in unbalancing the political forces of the day. The White House and Republican congressional leadership tilted well over the line to the right side of the balance of power -- and fell over.

In a matter of hours -- with the tax-cut triumph in the bank -- Bush Two began reversing its position on a range of issues from global warming to oil drilling in the Artic to free-trading in steel and what to do about North Korea. Bush Three will finish the transition by backing off on health, education and welfare policies, and on his Clintonian desire to bring home American troops in dangerous places -- and eventually on Star Wars-style missile defenses.

This will not happen because of the political leap of one senator. It will happen because there is no consensus in the country or the world for the extreme policies Bush Two proposed in such amiable confusion over these past four months.

The new reality of Bush Three also does not mean that Democrats at home or world leaders will gang up on this President Bush. The Democrats do not have a mandate either, and if party leaders think so and try to push their programs as far as the Republicans did, there just might be a Bush Four.

Leaders abroad may be appalled about the unilateralism of Bush Two, and have some fun and make some political hay at home needling the president about the environment, capital punishment and other hot-button issues, but at the end of the day -- and the end of this trip -- those leaders are not looking to challenge or reject American leadership. They may complain, they may joke about the kind of leaders Americans elect, but they can't go it alone economically and militarily.

Actually, we can't go it alone, either. And the Bush Two idea that we could, or that we could force people at home and abroad to do things they did not think sensible, is the principal reason we now have the new Bush Three.

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