The current polls show President Bush running behind all of the serious Democratic candidates. While polling this early is not very meaningful, Bush’s sharp decline in stature is. There are, I think, three reasons why he will probably not be re-elected.
Two of Bush’s problems are not of his own making. The first is that he is associated with bad news–a recession which he inherited, and the Sept. 11 attacks for which he bears no responsibility. But the fact, fair or not, is that most people associate the Bush presidency with troubled times.
One of the most powerful forces in human affairs is wishful thinking. Its impact is incalculable. Consciously or not, a great many people, by November, will believe that casting George Bush out of office may put an end to a painful era of terrorism and recession.
Bush’s second fundamental problem is the unexpected absence of banned weapons in Iraq. I think it is almost impossible to overestimate the impact of this development on Bush’s chances for re-election. The president staked his administration on the decision to invade Iraq. The decision was obviously risky, but it looked like a good bet at the time. What no one expected was that the most politically important rationale for the invasion would fizzle out. If our troops had come across the expected stocks of chemical and biological weapons, the entire Iraq situation would be cast in a different light. Of course there would be casualties; but so what? Americans would believe that there was no choice but to disarm Saddam’s regime. Democratic critics of the war would look foolish, or worse.
The Iraq war may still turn out to be a good idea on account of its primary objective, the promotion of democracy in the Arab world. But the success or failure of the venture in this regard will certainly not be known by November, and likely will not be known in our lifetimes. If George Bush goes down in history as the liberator of the Arabs, it will happen far too late to save his presidency.
President Bush’s third major problem is the only one that is his fault: the record deficit that has resulted from his failure to make any serious effort to restrain federal spending. I suspect that the president could have survived any two of the three problems he is now trying to overcome, but the deficit will cancel out the strong economy in the public’s mind, and give his opponents endless ammunition to hammer him on domestic policy. And this wound–the fatal one, I think–is regrettably self-inflicted.
Could President Bush still pull it out? Sure. A great many surprises are lurking between now and November. But I think his chances are small. John Kerry is a boring but experienced politician who is unlikely to make serious blunders. The Democrats, with George Soros and the Heinz fortune on their side, will have far more money than has ever been spent on an election. Bush’s best hope is that voters react negatively when they learn that Kerry led an anti-American organization, and accused his fellow veterans of being war criminals–a fact that at present, hardly anyone knows. But at best, doubts about Kerry’s patriotism will negate his status as a war hero. I don’t think they will doom his campaign. Neither will simply painting him as a liberal. The country has moved far to the left of where it was in the 1980s, and what worked in 1984 and 1988 will not work in 2004.
There is, of course, a powerful case to be made for the President’s re-election. But President Bush, sadly, is too inarticulate to make his own case. He is a good man and generally a good decision-maker. At one time I thought he would become one of our greatest presidents. But he lacks the talent to defend himself against the torrents of hate that are being unleashed against him by the Democrats–an outpouring of viciousness that has no parallel in our history. He has made, really, only one major mistake, his failure to control spending. But that mistake, together with a terrible run of bad luck, will, I am afraid, cost him his presidency.
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