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
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 the 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
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 is 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 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.
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.
Email James Antle
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 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
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
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.
W. James Antle III is a Senior Editor for EnterStageRight.com and a primary columnist for IntellectualConservative.com. He is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachussetts.
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