2004 Bring A Second Bush Term?
W. James Antle III
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
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
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
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.