Things did not look good for President George W. Bush in the summer of 2003, but he has entered the New Year with many happy returns indeed. He has rebounded nicely in most of the areas that bedeviled him during the troubled months and now appears poised to win reelection. But it is still a long way to November and in politics, like life, there are no guarantees.
Yet there is no question that the president’s team is heading into 2004 breathing easier than just a few months ago. President Bush’s job approval ratings are on the upswing, he leads the entire Democratic field in pollsters’ trial match-ups and his campaign coffers are awash with contributions as he has managed to outpace even the Democrats’ most prodigious fundraisers. His party remains unified behind him – no major Republican, not even a has-been perennial symbolic candidate with the stature of the late Harold Stassen – while nationally known Democrats like Zell Miller and Ed Koch have begun to break ranks and endorse him.
Then there is the unmistakable momentum of issues starting to break his way. One by one, the talking points and news events the Democrats have been picking up to bludgeon the president are being taken away like toys with sharp edges from a toddler.
Good news had been elusive on the economic front for much of Bush’s tenure, but that has started to change recently. The economy grew 8.2 percent in the final quarter of 2004, the fastest growth rate in 20 years. The stock market is ascendant. Even manufacturing sector growth has far outstripped expectations; the Washington Post reported that the pace of new orders has reached levels not seen since 1950 while the Institute for Supply Management’s Purchasing Managers’ Index reached 66.2 percent, the highest since late 1983. Manufacturing jobs grew for two straight months at the end of 2003 after a long period of decline. Jobless claims are the lowest they have been during Bush’s presidency. The lower marginal tax rates on income, capital and dividends are proving to be more than a boon to the rich as they provide needed stimulus to the whole economy.
There’s also been progress on the international front, most notably the capture of Saddam Hussein. It remains to be seen whether placing Saddam in U.S. custody will mark the turning point in the Iraq, where the postwar occupation has proved more difficult than major combat operations. But it certainly has a number of political effects. No longer can the Democrats trumpet Saddam’s whereabouts a foreign-policy failure for the administration. Wiser Democrats are likely to be more reluctant to make similar claims about Osama bin Laden or perhaps even weapons of mass destruction for fear that future revelations will discredit their talking points.
Notwithstanding most of the reporting and commentary however, the Bush administration has not committed our troops to Iraq merely to hunt for Saddam and WMDs. The purpose of the mission called Operation Iraqi Freedom was to alter the balance of power in the Middle East in ways more hospitable to the West (particularly America) and less hospitable to al Qaeda terrorists. Although a large part of this was to be done in part through the establishment of a free, democratic Iraq as a precedent for freedom in the region – an accomplishment that still seems remote at this writing – the claim that the operation might yield political and strategic benefits is starting to look more plausible.
The most recent example: Libya. Muammar Gaddafi has opted to open his country up to intrusive weapons inspections and begin to disarm, at least in part because he was fearful of what American power had done in Iraq and to Saddam. If followed by evidence of conciliation and reform from area countries ranging from Syria to Saudi Arabia, the Bush foreign-policy position will grow stronger. It’s a cliché to say that 9/11 changed everything, but one thing it did change was the relative importance of foreign affairs and national security in the politics of an orange-alert world.
But it’s possible that the biggest advantage Bush has reaped in recent months hasn’t been anything he has done or anything within his control. It has been the metamorphosis of the Democratic Party as MoveOn.Org and the Democratic Underground have supplanted the DLC and other sane elements in the party’s center of power. This shift among the Democrats has propelled Howard Dean from an insurgent backbencher to the front-runner for the nomination. Once considered a model New Democrat while governor of Vermont, Dean has successfully channeled and tapped into the anger, resentment and even hatred the most passionate Democrats feel toward Bush and their intense opposition to the Iraq war.
The problem for the Democrats is that majority of the country does not share this hostility toward Bush anymore than they shared the right’s crusading dislike for Bill Clinton in the 1990s. To win, Dean must tack back to the center and appeal to voters beyond the Democratic base. Perhaps he will do this easily. He does have some “Libertarians for Dean” and even “Republicans for Dean” supporters who aren’t exactly Democrats from straight out of central casting, mainly driven by their opposition to the Iraq war and concern for civil liberties in the wake of the Patriot Act and its coming sequels. Whenever I write critically of Dean using the conventional arguments hostile to the ideology of big-government liberal Democrats, I receive e-mails reproachfully reminding me of his fiscally responsible centrist credentials.
Aside from the inescapable reality that either his moderate or far-left supporters, each of whom appear to be projecting their own political philosophy upon their candidate, are going to end up being disappointed, as Dean has gotten closer to the prize he has seemed ever more determined to prove Republicans right who intimate that he is too extreme and too, well, unbalanced (his Democratic opponents prefer “angry”) to be president. He regards the notion that Bush knew about 9/11 in advance as an “interesting theory.” He recently said he’d like to avoid pre-judging bin Laden before he could get a fair trial. When informed of a conspiracy theory that Bush would try to stay in office past his term (some right-wingers concocted similar conspiracy theories supposing that Clinton would manufacture a Y2K crisis to avoid stepping down at the conclusion of his term), Dean credulously replied that he’d heard that too.
To be sure, there is a constituency for these ideas. It doesn’t take much of a Google search to find websites authoritatively repeating them. But these are not mainstream views likely to bring swing voters onboard the Dean campaign bandwagon. This why many leading Democrats break into a cold sweat thinking about the possibility of Dean as the nominee; strategists of both parties are starting to see 1972 all over again, when President Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern in a 49-state landslide.
Nevertheless, it is still premature to conclude that 2004 will be a mere replay of 1972. For one thing, it is not 1972. The country, as the USA Today 2000 electoral map so famously showed, is more divided politically and on the major cultural questions than it was back then. The liberal rebels who supported McGovern then and Dean today were hippie college students thirty years ago; Dean is also popular among retro-hippie college students, but a lot of yesterday’s McGovernites are comfortable middle-class, suburban establishment types today. The party of acid, amnesty and abortion – to which the American Spectator’s Jeremy Lott recently added “gays, graft and groupthink” – draws on an entire culture of the same.
Second, there is still an outside chance that Dean won’t be the nominee. Richard Gephardt could win the Iowa caucuses by a margin that will allow him to revive his campaign nationally and shatter Dean’s inevitability. John Kerry could come close in enough in finishing second to Dean in New Hampshire that his campaign manages to live another day beyond that must-win primary (although this scenario is admittedly quite unlikely). Or as Dean racks up early victories, Gephardt, Kerry and other leading Democratic candidates could drop out and allow enough of the field to wilt away for the Democrats to finally coalesce around a single stop-Dean candidate alone in the primaries with the former Vermont governor. This role could be played by Wesley Clark, John Edwards or even Joseph Lieberman. Dean supporters amount to less than 50 percent of most primary electorates and an anti-Dean candidate would likely find supporters among the super-delegates not chosen through the primary and caucus process.
Or finally, Dean could refine his eloquent and deeply felt critique of the Bush administration and move beyond criticisms that appeal to the leftist fringe to those that connect with the mainstream. Bush’s reputation for secrecy, rich-guy connections and black-and-white views on issues where many Americans are ambivalent are all areas where swing voters could potentially become as concerned as hardened Democrats.
There are also a number of issues where Bush could still prove vulnerable, many of which Dean and the Democrats have little or no control over.
The bottom could still fall out of the economy: We often talk about the national public debt, but it is a less frequently discussed fact that our economy today sits on the sinking sands of a huge amount of private debt. Credit-card consumption spending, tenuous second mortgages – this level of indebtedness could cause financial dislocations for many families in the bubble-bursting circumstances. A similar trend exists in business, encouraged by loosey-goosy U.S. monetary policy. Combined with high levels of federal spending and borrowing that take resources out of the private economy today and threaten to taken even more through higher taxes tomorrow, an economic disruption is unlikely but possible. Even if the economy to continues to grow, employment figures will be important. If all else fails, Bush’s opponent will try to talk about a “jobless recovery.”
The war in Iraq could go badly: Prior to the president’s Thanksgiving visit to the troops and U.S. forces capturing Saddam, the public was growing increasingly concerned about the number of casualties and resistance we have faced in Iraq. We also still have a large amount of heavy lifting to do with regard to nation-building and transferring sovereignty back to Iraq which could prove challenging. Right now, Dean’s decision to tie himself to the antiwar movement looks like a political miscalculation. But if Americans grow tired of the war, it could become a liability for Bush who seems to cyclically develop a habit of not reminding the American people of the mission’s purpose.
There could be a negative development elsewhere in the war on terror: Whatever anyone else can say about the administration’s conduct of the war on terror, this much is true: The homeland has been more secure post-9/11 than many of us who watched those towers falling would have then expected. An event such as a terrorist attack could undermine Bush’s credibility as a wartime and anti-terrorism leader. But it could also have the opposite effect of reminding Americans of the importance of the war on terror and renew concerns about the Democrats’ commitment to it. Clark, Gephardt or Lieberman might be able to persuade the public they are serious on these issues, but could Dean?
Amnesty and guest workers could provoke an open revolt among Bush’s conservative base: Many conservatives, particularly think-tankers and intellectuals, are disenchanted with Bush’s record on federal spending. A number of social conservatives would prefer that the administration take a more forthright position on their issues, particularly a proactive role in opposing same-sex marriage. But by and large, rank-and-file conservative Republicans are happy with the president and few will vote against him (or even stay home) on the basis of these issues. But one salient issue that starkly pits the Bush administration against the grassroots is immigration. The establishment in both parties underestimates the extent of the public’s feeling about the need to reassert control over the borders. A proposal that seems to reward illegal immigration and to be more geared toward the cheap-labor lobby than the national interest could generate more anger among conservatives than anything Bush has done in office and possibly prove disastrous in a close election. Amnesty, especially if handled poorly, could end up being for Bush what breaking the pledge not to raise taxes was for his father.
It is not fortuitous for a candidate to be forced into the position of hoping either his opponent stumbles politically or something bad happens to the country. Yet that is where the Democrats by and large find themselves. Incumbents tend to be unseated only when there is a consensus that they are doing a bad job or a realignment in favor of the opposing party. Neither situation presently exists. It is debatable whether the Republicans are coming into their own as the majority party or we are still living in a country divided roughly 50-50. But we are quite clearly not yet experiencing anything like a Democratic realignment. And while there might be a number of people who strongly dislike Bush and regard him as a failed president, very few of these people voted for him in 2000 or could have been counted on voting for him in 2004 under any circumstances. If he isn’t in as strong a position as Nixon in 1972 or Ronald Reagan in 1984, he is in at least as good a position as Clinton in 1996.
So Bush’s situation will need to change in order for his political fortunes to change. This is not impossible and 11 months can be a lifetime in politics. But right now, the smart money is on Bush and the million-dollar question is whether Dean or another Democrat can persuade the country to change its mind.