Will 2004 Bring A Second Bush Term?
By 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
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
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
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.
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