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.
The one conspicuous failure of the Bush campaign was its failure to win the young vote. Bush's personal retirement accounts are popular with young voters, and he now has the megaphone to speak to them.
If Bush is transforming the American electorate, he is also transforming the world. For nearly two years, Old Media have been broadcasting pictures of violence and chaos in Iraq, ignoring the many changes for the better there. Last week, they could ignore those changes no longer.
On Jan. 30, 8 million Iraqis voted and held up their purple-ink-stained fingers and danced in the streets. On Feb. 2, as Bush delivered his State of the Union, Republican congressmen (and perhaps some Democrats, though I didn't see any) held up purple-ink-stained fingers, as Bush echoed his Second Inaugural and specified how he would advance liberty in the world.
America and the world watched as, in the gallery, Safia Taleb al-Suhali, whose father was murdered by Saddam Hussein's thugs, embraced Janet Norwood, the mother of a Marine sergeant who died in Fallujah. The world could see: A grateful Iraq was thanking a bereaved America for its sacrifices in the cause of freedom. Sacrifices not made in vain.
The Democrats' demands for an "exit strategy" show that they just don't get it. Bush has persevered through many months, of vicious attacks and Old Media pessimism. And he is succeeding.
On Social Security, Old Media can't use pictures to discredit Bush's arguments (but watch for pictures of old ladies eating cat food) and the Democrats' "just say no" argument will threaten to do them more damage. Old Media's credibility has been reduced by the hamhandedness of its attempts to defeat Bush Dan Rather's forged documents and the New York Times' "missing weapons."
Bush's credibility has been enhanced by events that Old Media cannot conceal. Success on Social Security is not assured. But this president's ability to transform America and the world should not be misunderestimated.