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Opinion: A New Republican Era?

U.S. President George W. Bush will be inaugurated for a second and final term on Thursday. Despite having a "lame duck" leader -- the Republican party in the U.S. looks set to stay in power for the long haul.

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Bush is set to begin his term as a lame-duck president

After Thursday's inauguration, George W. Bush will turn into a "lame duck" president, one who can't run for another term under U.S. law. Experience shows that his political power will diminish over the course of the next four years, especially his power to influence Congress.

Präsident Bush wird Vereidigt

First Bush inauguration, in 2001

Despite this, the Republican party may well be on the verge of a new era of dominance as the "natural majority party" according to chief Bush strategist Karl Rove. On certain topics, the Republicans have long commanded an almost uncontested dominance. Now, the party's plan is to make this situation permanent.

Whether this can be done depends on many factors, including the future health of the Democratic party, power struggles among Republicans and the question of whether extremism within the government will grow to the point where moderates will be scared off in large numbers.

Meeting little resistance

Meanwhile, the Republicans have little to fear from their main opposition, the Democrats. While some commentators and Republicans note that the defeat of the Democrats in the last election wasn't exactly decisive, it nonetheless gave rise to an internal struggle that may take years to resolve.

Arnold Schwarzenegger auf dem Republikanerparteitag

Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to have a bright future

When politics becomes mainly a question of winning elections, and no longer follows a vision of creating a model for society, closely lost elections become especially painful. That's why the part of the Democratic party that found the Kerry-Edwards ticket too far to the "left" would rather revive a Clintonian neo-liberalism -- even if John Kerry's positions weren't really very far from Bill Clinton's. Others want to see politics turn yet further to the "values" of the South -- where the Republicans made great gains -- and are questioning abortion rights, for example.

To save itself, the Democratic party is making itself superfluous.

In addition, the 2004 election exposed the organizational weakness of the Democrats. While Democratic get-out-the-vote drives from activist groups garnered praised from all quarters, the Republicans were even more successful.

'Family values'

The Republicans' strength caught the Democrats by surprise. But the Democrats' urgent technical analysis of the 2004 election results ignores a basic problem: While Democratic voting coalitions are becoming more and more heterogeneous, the Republicans are being sustained by a social movement -- the (white) Christian right -- which promotes a comprehensive vision of how America should look in the future.

Der demokratische Präsidentschaftskandidat Senator John Kerry in New York US-Wahlen

Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in the November election

Moreover, the Republican strategy to promote a conservative concept of "family values" appeals strongly to a portion of the Democrats' core constituency. Finally, the Democrats hardly managed to offer an economic or sociopolitical vision to their core voters, which explains why the second Republican vision -- the supremacy of the free market and private responsibility -- was so well received by middle-of-the-road Democrats.

In the short and middle term, then, the Republicans have only themselves to defeat. Still, this particular scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Too far to the right?

On the one hand, despite the fact that the population appears to be polarized along cultural-religious lines, it is not clear how much backing there is for a politics based entirely on tightly proscribed "Christian values." Under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Christian right mostly received only rhetorical support, despite government support of some "faith-based initiatives," which make federal funds available to religious institutions engaged in social programs.

And while the Democrats in the Senate (the upper house of the legislature) may be able to forestall, for the short term, the nominations of overly radical judges or cabinet ministers, the blocking of candidates would ultimately allow the Republican establishment to paint the Democrats as obstructionist "bogeymen."

Still, Americans have rejected overly rigorous moralizing in the past, for example, during Prohibition.

Pension system issue is key

While the massive Republican campaign to malign all government-backed, tax payer-funded social systems was largely successful, if Bush actually manages to push through his plans for privatizing the pension system, nothing will hinder the current American social fabric from unravelling.

The U.S. pension system has until now kept the rudimentary American social welfare system firmly anchored in the middle class, and dismantling it would inevitably lead to massive societal discrepancies. To some degree, this is necessary for economic growth, but as the discrepancies grow, so does social conflict. If this should happen, the Democratic Party and the unions could then revive collective action in reinstating some level of social equality. That, in turn, could then become a key to the renewal of "their" social movement.

Foreign policy issues

Last but not least is the question of foreign policy. Bush has promised that from now on he will choose his words more carefully, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he wants to offend the allies less frequently. But at the same time, rumors about plans for a military attack on Iran are floating around in the media. It reminds one of Theodore Roosevelt's dictum, "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Trost

Cindy Miles weeps at the casket of her son, Army PFC Timmy Brown, Jr. who was killed in Iraq.

It is not clear whether neo-conservatives will be allowed to continue their military-backed campaigns, or whether a more classical realism will be dominant during Bush's second term. But all Republican foreign policy experts agree on one thing: Any challenge to America's superpower status should be impeded.

Indeed, nearly all foreign policy experts, in both parties, agree that American interests are universal interests. American interests will never play second fiddle to stated interests of the world community -- for instance, those laid out by the United Nations. Thus, if military action is justified as being necessary to defend American interests -- always a possibility -- then it will be supported and carried out in a bipartisan manner. This will be the case even if it means stretching the U.S. military and financial systems too thin, and even despite the apparent difficulty of winning not only a war, but peace.

If such tactics lead to long-term military engagement, with attendant loss of American life, then the "body-bag theory" -- that American dissatisfaction with its leadership grows with every fallen U.S. soldier -- may finally be played out in the voting booth.

Thomas Greven is a political scientist at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University in Berlin. In September 2004, his book "The Republicans: Anatomy of an American Party" was published. (jen)

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