Don’t believe me? Consider the highlight reel of reelected presidents over the past 50 years. Ike won a second term and watched in dismay as his chief of staff was forced to resign over a vicua coat. Richard Nixon buried George McGovern in 1972 and then resigned a year and a half later when Watergate finally caught up to him. Ronald Reagan sweated out his second term wondering if he’d be impeached over Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton didn’t have to wonder: Two years after his reelection, he was defending himself in the first impeachment trial in over a century.
Coincidence? Don’t believe it. There are three good reasons to think that second terms naturally lend themselves to scandal, and George Bush is almost preternaturally vulnerable to every one of them. Let’s count them off.
First, power corrupts. It’s a truism that as leaders become used to the idea that no one can really hold them to account, they increasingly push the envelope of acceptable behavior and eventually push too far. Not just in America, but in practically every democracy, this inevitably leads to abuses of power that eventually turn into scandals both small and large.
George Bush is more susceptible than most to this dynamic. Partly this is because his party controls Congress, so he has no real political oversight to keep him honest. But it’s also because both Bush and the current Republican Party leadership have already demonstrated a ruthlessness and disregard for traditional political norms unseen since Nixon was jotting down his enemies list: holding open votes while they bully recalcitrant colleagues, ramming through midterm redistricting, suspending the Freedom of Information Act in all but theory, and cavalierly hiding routine budget data from Congress–all combined with a general mania for secrecy that leaves even John Dean in awe. It’s a dangerous and intoxicating brew, and George Bush has demonstrated the combination of ruthlessness, siege mentality, and religious faith in his own righteousness that makes it almost inevitable that he will take a step too far.
Second, there’s the problem that second terms are, well, second terms. It takes more than two or three years for a serious scandal to unfold, and problems that start to surface midway through a president’s first term usually reach critical mass midway through his second term, a phenomenon that shrewd political observer Kevin Phillips calls “the sixth-year itch.” It’s like a political SAT: What’s the next year in the series 1958, 1974, 1986, 1998?
You don’t have to be a math whiz to know that 2006 is the next stop. And once again, George Bush is especially vulnerable to this since his first term already has several good candidates for scandals waiting to flower. Take your pick: Valerie Plame? The National Guard? Abu Ghraib? Intelligence failures? Or maybe something that hasn’t really crossed anybody’s radar screen yet, sort of like the “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Hotel that no one took seriously in 1972.
Third, there’s the fact that scandals tend to take center stage during second terms because there’s nothing to draw attention away from them. In 2000, for example, Bush ran on a platform of education reform, Medicare prescription benefits, and tax cuts–9/11 added the Iraq war as a fourth signature issue. But what’s left for a second term? Education and Medicare are done deals, even most Republicans understand that tax cutting has gone as far as it can, and no one expects Bush to start another war.
This leaves a dangerous void, and so far Bush has done nothing to fill it, campaigning almost entirely on his record in the war on terror. He will surely toss out a few new issues during and after the Republican convention, but it’s obvious his heart isn’t really in them. What’s more, it also isn’t clear if any of his likely pet projects–Social Security privatization or tort reform, for example–can generate much congressional enthusiasm.
If Osama bin Laden detonates a suitcase nuke in Los Angeles, all bets are off, of course. That aside, the most likely course is a continuing low-level insurgency in Iraq, a mediocre economy, and a halfhearted second-term agenda from the White House. If you combine that with a thin legislative majority, an outraged Democratic Party, and a public increasingly leery of Bush’s Texas-style conservatism, what you get–aside from a few rancorous battles over Supreme Court nominations–is a presidency adrift.
It’s the perfect breeding ground for a major scandal, and George Bush is exactly the right guy, with exactly the right personality, to step right into it.