More thoughts on 2004

I want to follow up on my last post about the peril Iraq poses for President Bush’s re-election. The extent of such peril will be determined by voter views on three questions — one about the past; one about the present; and one about the future.
The question about the past is whether we should have become involved in the first place. That question could become largely academic if things go well enough in the next year, but it’s not clear that we have the right to assume that they will. If they don’t, I don’t see how voters can ignore the question.
On the current record regarding weapons of mass destruction, reasonable people can disagree as to whether we should have intervened. (I find the case for intervention persuasive in any event, but if it were compelling to any reasonable person, then President Bush would not have placed so much burden on the WMD argument). My sense is that the electorate will (again on the current record) split down the middle on this one. Of course, President Bush made his decision based on the information available to him at the time. But there are suspicions that he was not viewing the evidence in a completely objective fashion. So I regard this issue as break-even for the president. However, this issue is more likely to get better for him than it is to get worse. That is, the record on WMD may improve.
The second question is about the present — how are things going?. Reasonable people can disagree about this issue, as well. More precisely, reasonable people should be agnostic about it. However, the media drumbeat is such that most people probably would now say that things aren’t going very well. On the other hand, if we were close to an election, the president would likely do a better job of pointing to successes. In sum, the issue is worse than break-even for Bush now, but in the context of an election would probably be about break-even.
But what will matter, of course, is the situation a year from now. It is probably idle to speculate about what that situation will be, but perhaps not unreasonable to point out that it could still be in some sort of equipoise. In other words, significant progress might well be made, but fairly large numbers of troops might still be present, with the attendant casualties and costs.
The last question is forward-looking — where do we go from here? President Bush’s answer is, and will remain, “whatever it takes.” The Democratic answer will have to be the same in the sense that they cannot advocate leaving in defeat or not vigorously supporting the effort. But they still have the card they have played since before the war started — the “internationalization” card. This means that the Democrats are not forced into a me-too stance. Their position can be that we should do whatever it takes, but that it does not take freezing out our allies by stubbornly refusing to cede some control to the U.N. This isn’t a great card for the Democrats because the American public perceives that our “allies” are not acting in good faith but instead are trying to punish our alleged arrogance. So Bush has the edge on this issue. However, if the situation on the ground gets to the point that the Democrats have the edge on the issue of how things are going, then the internationalization answer will look better and better on the issue of where we go from here.
The 2004 election will not be about Iraq only. The state of the economy and of the overall battle against terrorism should also figure in a major way. But Iraq, if the situation goes badly, could easily replace 9/11 as the defining thing about the Bush presidency. If the situation goes well, it may still be the defining thing, but will play a smaller role in the election.

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