Can Bush Be Re-Elected?

For a long time I’ve had a foreboding that President Bush will be a one-termer. For obvious reasons, that feeling has gotten stronger over the summer. Normally one might say that there is little point in making predictions fourteen months before an election, and certainly much may change. But I really doubt that anything that happens between now and then will matter much. I think that whoever the Democrats nominate will be our next President. And, yes, that very much includes Howard Dean.
It appears to me that the establishment simply will not allow President Bush to be re-elected. The media, in lockstep as usual, have gone into a full-time Bush-bashing mode. Magazines like Time and Newsweek have gone over the top in a manner that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Last night in a gym I checked in on CNN periodically over an hour and a half. CNN’s entire progamming during that time was an anti-Bush campaign commercial; it was so blatant as to verge on self-parody. But that doesn’t make it ineffective.
Events between now and next November will matter, of course, but I’m afraid they won’t matter much. By then, it will be firmly established “fact” that the Iraq war has been a failure. It simply makes no difference how well the situation there goes over the next year. The goalposts will be moved to whatever extent necessary. The truth is that the Iraq venture has gone astonishingly well so far, but that doesn’t prevent the media from portraying it as a failure, and nothing that happens in the next year will change that.
The same applies to the economy. The economy has actually been doing quite well for some time, and the stock market has been booming for the past six months. The facts don’t matter: voters are becoming increasingly convinced that the economy is bad, and after four years they will hold Bush responsible. When George Bush senior ran for re-election in 1992, the mini-recession of 1990-91 had been over for a year and a half, and the economy was growing fast. Media spin easily overcame that reality, and the same thing will happen next year.
The administration can help itself, of course; maybe bin Laden turns up dead, maybe Saddam is captured, maybe Bush pulls a rabbit out of the hat on Iraq’s missing weapons. But the administration doesn’t control the news cycle. After 24 hours, the media drumbeat will once again be failure.
Along with the twin themes of lousy economy and failure in Iraq, the never-ending story will be Bush’s collapsing support and plunging poll ratings. This morning’s Minneapolis Star Tribune has a typical article; Bush’s approval rating in Minnesota is down to 49%, and he has lost the support of even a large number of conservatives. Meanwhile, Drudge headlines a poll showing Al Gore in a statistical dead heat with Bush. Bush’s collapse will be the story line from here to next November, and I don’t think there is a thing he can do about it.
For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, President Bush, a palpably decent and honest man, is the object of more rage and hatred than any President since Lincoln. The Democrats will have a potent one-two punch next year: Bush the Liar to the party faithful, Bush the Bumbler to swing voters. The Democrats want this election much more than the Republicans, and I don’t think they can be denied.
And I don’t think it matters who the Democratic nominee is. The election will be a referendum on the Bush administration. If Howard Dean gets the nomination, he will turn into a paragon of wisdom overnight. But I don’t think that will happen. I think Al Gore will get into the race, sweep to the nomination, and win relatively easily in November. Just when we thought we were finally rid of him for good.
Too pessimistic? I hope so. But the American voter has a childish streak that cannot be overestimated. Bush, unlike, say, Ronald Reagan, is not associated in the public’s mind with happy things. He is associated with war and terror. A great many Americans long to return to the days when the Islamofascists may have been plotting against us, but we either didn’t know or didn’t have to care. Can they return to those days be tossing Bush out of office? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try.
No one can predict what will happen between now and November 2004. But I don’t think it makes much difference. I don’t think Bush can be re-elected.
BIG TRUNK demurs: I’m on record as asking to be awoken when it’s over because Bush is on track to do fine in the 2004 election. The media are a joke, exactly as they were during the entirety of the Reagan administration. The hottest selling account of the Reagan-era economy and one that perfectly represented the media consensus was Barlett and Steeele’s America: What Went Wrong, based on a 1992 series that appeared in every Knight-Ridder newspaper in the country. According to the media, even as late as 1992, Reagan-era America was mired in homelessness, unemployment, and depression; nevertheless, this was a period in which — what was it? — nineteen million new jobs were created.
The Reagan economic boom did not commence until early 1983. Once the boom began, one had to be a connoisseur of economic data to comprehend the state of the economy because it was so misreported in the mainstream media. We’ve been in recovery now for a few quarters, and significant alternatives to the mainstream media exist to report it. The jobs lost in the first three years are problematic, but I think folks will understand the economic toll taken by 9/11.
Among the unhappy events that Reagan was most prominently associated with during his first term were the firing of the air traffic controllers, the derogation of the Soviet Union as an evil empire, and the initiation of a defense program relentlessly derided as loony (“Star Wars”). The more things change…and by the way, if I recall correctly, Lincoln was re-elected by a comfortable margin over a formidable Wesley Clark-style opponent.

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