Bush Banks on Elections at Home, Abroad

President Bush speaks at the White House about the Iraqi elections.

President Bush speaks at the White House about the Iraqi elections, Jan. 30, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

The Latin motto — Vox Populi Vox Dei — says the voice of the people is the voice of God. And no American leader has been happier to embrace that dictum than George W. Bush in the past four months.

The successful Iraqi elections of this past weekend are only the most recent case of President Bush betting substantially on an Election Day result and seeing his gamble pay off. Small wonder that he likes to talk about elections when explaining how he sees the world — or what he plans to do next.

Analysts will want to add a cautionary note about the Iraqi vote and about the Iraqis' future. Turnout was uneven, the total vote is not yet known, and the composition of the new government remains unclear. Some will argue that Iraqi voters were not endorsing Bush administration policy so much as enabling and accelerating an American withdrawal.

But the top line of the story probably stays the same. President Bush put his chips on a date-certain vote, despite widespread doubt and opposition inside Iraq, in the region, in Europe, in the United Nations and in the United States. Amidst all the hazards and warnings, he came up a winner.

The president has also been able to take a bow after recent rounds of balloting among Afghanis and Palestinians. He even got to exult in the democratic uprising in Ukraine, which rejected a government closely tied to Moscow. The American president managed to get on the Viktor Yushchenko bandwagon despite the embarrassment this caused the Russian leader Mr. Bush likes to call "my buddy Putin."

And that's not to mention the president's own re-election in November and the expansion of Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress. All this good news from the polls at home and abroad might have given the president new resolve in his stay-the-course attitude toward adversity — had he needed any. But feeling good about where he stands is not a problem for this chief executive. For him, and for his admirers, the winning streak is all about confirmation — so it contains no surprises.

For Bush opponents, however, these elections inspire frustrating contradictions. On one hand, even Bush foes must applaud the democratic breakthroughs overseas and share in the joys thereof. On the other, the degree to which this particular American president gets to take credit for such events makes some people uncomfortable to the point of pain.

This contrast between Mr. Bush and his detractors did not begin in the last four months. It's a pattern. At each critical juncture of his career, he has been elevated by the results of an election in which he exceeded their expectations.

Aside from an ill-advised bid for the House back in 1978, Bush can say he's won when he's run. A dozen years ago he was an underdog to incumbent Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in Texas. But he proved himself a better fit for the state than Richards and his victory ushered in a Republican era in Texas that has only grown stronger since. A huge re-election margin as governor in 1998 propelled him into presidential politics.

In 2000, it was Al Gore's turn to underestimate Mr. Bush, behaving as if the Republican nominee were not in his weight class. In 2002, the president and his party worked the politics of 9-11 to perfection and recaptured the Senate. In 2004, John Kerry did rather better than Gore, but a bare majority of the voters were still thinking about 9-11 and still feeling more connected to W.

Now the second-term President Bush has taken his charmed political life to the world stage. His wager on the Iraq election could hardly have been larger. A failed election there would have tarnished the grand theme of global democracy featured in his inaugural address Jan. 20. Moreover, and more important, the administration has shown no sign of having a Plan B for Iraq or for the 150,000 American troops now committed there.

But thanks to a great show of courage by Iraqis, the elections came off with less violence and more enthusiasm than most of the world thought possible. That is a great source of relief for all concerned, and a major vindication for the Bush administration. So the question becomes: Will the president seize the moment to initiate an exit strategy, or will he use the vote to leverage bold new policy moves in the region?

We have seen this president broadly interpret other electoral victories. He has used his own re-election in November as a touchstone when challenged. Iraq occupation? The president says the American people endorsed it by re-electing him. Social Security overhaul? The president brought it up during the campaign, so that must be okay with the voters too.

This is a tactic with a built-in time limit. In his second term, it may be increasingly difficult for the president to get a boost from elections — here or abroad. Mr. Bush himself has been on the ballot for the last time, and it will be difficult to make a second breakthrough (or further progress) in Afghanistan or Iraq by means of elections alone.

So if the President has powered his success to date by fueling up on Election Day, his tank will now be getting emptier as he drives on.

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