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Inside Politics

The political genius of George W. Bush

Democrats have much to weigh as they look to 2008

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Carlos Watson
The Inside Edge
George W. Bush
America Votes 2004

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, it is hard not to look at President Bush's re-election victory last week and conclude that he is probably one of the three or four most talented politicians of the last half of a century.

Why do I write that? Think about it. In 10 short years, George Walker Bush has won not just one but three high-profile political races that most able politicians would have lost.

In 1994, with no real previous political experience, he beat a popular incumbent governor in the nation's second most populous state. Six years later, he beat a sitting vice president during a time of peace and prosperity. And last week, with a mediocre economy, an unpopular war and a well-funded and unified opposition, he not only won his race but also helped increase Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

Rove not the only reason

Many people will point out that Bush has enjoyed advantages that most people never dream of -- inherited wealth, a famous family name, unbelievable connections and multiple second chances. But while those are legitimate critiques, the reality is that FDR's sons never won the presidency; there never was a David Eisenhower administration; and Ronald Reagan's kids have never inspired much political fear.

Others will write that Karl Rove deserves much or all of the credit. But do you really believe that you can beat former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry just by being a "puppet"? Sure, Rove helps -- as all savvy advisers do. Remember Dick Morris, Lee Atwater and Michael Deaver?

Politics is as much about the person as it is about the process. It is a tough, intense game, and the candidate has to be up to the fight. If not, he will eventually fail -- if not against Richards, then against Gore; if not against Gore, then against Kerry.

Five Bush qualities

Instead of just crediting his family name or Rove, Bush's extraordinary political success is probably owed to at least five key things: (1) great political fundamentals, including an ability and willingness to raise large sums of money; (2) an ability to propose a clear, coherent and easily understandable policy agenda (e.g., "compassionate conservatism"); (3) an ability to attract, manage and retain a strong team of advisers (e.g., Rove, Ken Mehlman, Ed Gillespie, Karen Hughes, Matthew Dowd and others); (4) a willingness to go for the jugular -- repeatedly and without remorse (e.g., the "flip-flopper" label, gay marriage issue, South Carolina primary in 2000); and perhaps most important (5) a willingness to take a risk repeatedly (e.g., targeting Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle for defeat, offering a Social Security overhaul plan proposal, relying and counting on an evangelical turnout plan).

I write all of this not to rubber-stamp the president's political tactics or policies, but to say that if you are a serious observer of politics, it is worth your time recognizing a rare political talent when it is in your midst. Indeed, such talents do not come along very often -- Bill Clinton in 1992, 1996 and again in 1998-99; Reagan -- not just from 1980-88 but also from 1976-80 (his years in the wilderness between presidential campaigns); JFK as a candidate during his 1960 campaign; and LBJ for his legislative successes from 1963-66.

The bigger picture

While Bush's re-election victory was a significant one, perhaps just as noteworthy is the reality that his second-term presidency may ultimately emerge as the most consequential four years since LBJ's only full term 40 years ago.

Given the big issues in front of him, his significant "political capital" (as he puts it), his proven ability to get legislation through Congress and now his increased Republican strength in the House and Senate, the president has an opportunity to make some of the most significant -- some would say radical and unjust -- policy changes in the last four decades.

From Social Security, the Supreme Court and taxes to education, the environment and the United Nations, Bush may make significant departures from established U.S. policy during the next four years -- and thus, absent illness, scandal or major surprise, his second term may one day be regarded as the most consequential presidency in two generations.

Democrats and policy

Before criticizing the Democrats or Kerry too strongly, it is worth remembering that if out of the 115 million-plus voters nationwide, some 70,000 had switched sides in Ohio last week, we would be trumpeting President Kerry instead of President Bush. We would be discussing the groundbreaking miracle of a Catholic, a senator and a Northeastern liberal winning the presidency against a talented and well-funded wartime commander. But as my father taught me long ago, life is a game of inches, and so once again Bush won a difficult presidential election.

In analyzing the 2004 Democratic effort, many political observers will focus on "MMC": the messenger, the message and the campaign. Many of those critiques are likely to be right on. Kerry could have been a more charismatic and enjoyable candidate; Democrats should have had a clearer policy message -- a brand so to speak; and the campaign's television ads and get-out-the-vote effort could have been better.

But one critique that you may not hear is that the next Democratic candidate needs to love policy more. What do I mean? I mean that one of Kerry's real weaknesses may ultimately have been that he did not seem to love policy broadly and know what he wanted to do -- separate and apart from the political strains of the moment or the polls. And so when he discussed creating jobs, fixing the situation in Iraq or helping kids improve their education, the talk sounded to undecided or uninspired voters like just that -- talk. It did not sound concrete and real to many voters (including more than 80 million people who were eligible to vote but did not cast a ballot for Bush, Kerry or anyone else last week).

Part of that may be because while senators create new programs and guidelines, they do not implement them. They often do not see firsthand the jobs being created or destroyed, the list of parks to be cleaned up across a state or the number of new courses the state universities will offer this year. But governors do see such things.

Now that does not mean that any governor is automatically better than any senator as a presidential candidate. But it does mean that the most effective presidential candidates love policy, think deeply and broadly about it, and can personalize it as well. So as the Democrats head into 2008, they would do well to find not only a politically talented candidate or a candidate who just happens to go to church, but a policy-talented candidate whose ideas as well as her or his image and manner will connect with voters.

George W. Bush, Clinton and Reagan all did that.

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