It's showtime! Time for the Republican Party to deliver on decades of big promises to true believers: Ban abortions! Renew family values! Win the drug war! Slash taxes! Just remember, guys, no more excuses about Democrats obstructing the GOP platform. Your bluff has been called.
It is tempting for the Republicans to keep coasting on the wave of wartime popularity even though they now control both halls of Congress, but that tactic is risky, as the failure of the first Bush presidency attests. Foreign policy is an unpredictable business -- don't look now, but Muslim fundamentalists have won in Pakistan, Afghanistan is ungovernable, and the U.S. march to war against Iraq to distract from the failure to smash al-Qaida is mired in U.N. diplomacy.
Not even another stunning victory over Saddam Hussein will be sufficient to ensure reelection for George W. Bush if the economy is in the doldrums, if the national debt accelerates and if the Christian right is again frustrated in its relentless quest to ban abortions.
The president and his party are now wholly responsible for stewardship of the American economy. Their fate two years from now will hang mostly on hard numbers: how many of us are unemployed and what remains of our 401Ks.
Yet Bush's key palliative for the stagnant economy, the tax cut, has failed miserably as a stimulus and instead has contributed to a sharply rising national debt.
Combine that with the spiraling cost of throwing money at any program with the vaguest connection to national security, and it seems clear that red ink will flow heavily from here to the next election.
And don't expect Joe and Jane Middle Class to rescue Wall Street. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department -- trying to please a White House run by old corporate con artists -- are stumbling over themselves to avoid responsibility for policing publicly held companies.
It might take a decade or two before regular folks forget how they learned painfully anew that gambling, whether on stocks or craps, always brings out the sharks.
Big business bet heavily on the Republicans in this election in order to block any attempts to bring more CEOs to justice. Better to distract the public from the ugly side of deregulation by beating the patriotic war drums and indulging the rhetoric of the Christian right by pretending to restore family values.
On the latter front, the GOP's moment of truth may have finally arrived -- the mere pretense of commitment to an extremist social agenda may no longer be enough for anti-abortion voters. Controlling all branches of the federal government, Bush & Co. is going to be under the gun to actually ban abortions, something the GOP has boldly pledged for decades.
The social conservatives in the party provided the foot soldiers in the midterm election, and they will now demand concrete victories, beginning with a right-wing makeover of the judiciary. Bush already has announced that he will resubmit the list of conservative federal judicial appointees stalled in the last Senate. And with the relatively moderate Sandra Day O'Connor the most likely to step down, Bush has promised to appoint an anti-choice Antonin Scalia clone to solidify right-wing dominance of the Supreme Court.
Under such leadership, the highest court in the land would be likely to strike down Roe vs. Wade. But the mere thought of this long-sought "victory" makes the GOP's political pros squirm: To go back to the days when abortion was illegal and women routinely died as a result of self-inflicted coat-hanger wounds is hardly a prescription for future Republican victories.
The GOP has long blamed Democratic control of one or both houses of Congress for its failure to act on a radical agenda that is not supported by most Americans. This, in fact, is the disaster that befell the "Gingrich Revolution."
There is another choice for Bush, however. He could lead his party back to its roots. That Republican Party was suspicious of foreign entanglements, was vigorously in favor of population control and civil rights, and -- while certainly pro-big business -- was committed to stewardship of the nation's resources and the integrity of economic instruments such as the stock market.
Such a turn toward core American values would make Bush a serious leader. Unfortunately, he seems to have mastered the tongue of the demagogue and too much enjoys the victories that slick words and tough talk afford to consider charting the more moderate path Americans seek.