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Los Angeles Times

November 4, 2004

George W. Bush is the first presidential incumbent running for a second term to increase his majorities in the House and Senate since 1936. He could act on this triumph in two wildly different ways. He could keep moving to the ideological right and, as Vice President Dick Cheney put it Wednesday, act as though "the nation responded by giving him a mandate." Or, more beneficially for all, he could "reach out to the whole nation" and "work together and come together" — the words that Bush used during his victory speech at Washington's Ronald Reagan Building.

Bush has often cited Reagan as his inspiration, and he could do worse than to follow his playbook.

Reagan, the scourge of the American left and Europe, tacked sharply to the center during his second term, dumping his hawkish advisors and reaching arms control agreements with former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The thaw in relations between the superpowers led to the melting away of the Cold War.

Political leaders who overreach toward self-aggrandizing goals, as then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich did in the late 1990s, can leave not just their own power but their parties' in ruins. Gingrich grew arrogant with the early successes of his sweeping "contract with America" agenda and ruthlessly shut down the federal government in a budget dispute. The anger generated by that act only amplified an ethical scandal over his use of political money. The GOP ended up with its worst showing in years in the 1998 midterm elections. With a comfortable Senate margin and a House chafing to push the conservative agenda, Bush will be more than tempted to pander to the worst instincts of the GOP. Given his tactics during his first term, which were to demand as much of his agenda as possible upfront, his increased margins in Congress will be hard to resist when it comes to more and bigger tax cuts, tougher restrictions on civil liberties, more largess for energy companies. But legacies prey on the mind of statesmen, something Bush surely wouldn't mind being. He could start by morphing back into the man who ran for president in 2000, who declared he would reach out to Democrats and not let ideological differences wreck a good bipartisanship.

That road seems far behind him. But history responds to grand gestures, to the unexpected leap. Reagan knew it. Even if Bush's own history says otherwise about him, legacy is a powerful force.