Bush's Reelection Liabilities Mount
By Robert Kuttner
Wednesday 03 September 2003
WITH LABOR DAY 2003, the race to November 2004 is on. Seemingly, President Bush will be seriously on the defensive on the issues, but with a big advantage on the politics. However, voters are likely to be energized in 2004 as they have rarely been in recent years. And voter mobilization will ultimately determine whether Bush gets a second term. First, the issues. Bush's foreign policy is a shambles. The architects of the Iraq war have been proven wrong on every contention they made -- the imminent weapons of mass destruction, the alleged Saddam-Al Qaeda connection, the supposed ease of occupation and reconstruction. Thumbing America's nose at "old Europe" proved a major blunder. Bush now needs the United Nations to clean up his mess, but he is insisting on US control. France and Germany, not to mention Russia and China, aren't exactly lining up to donate money and troops to bail Bush out. The administration line -- that the Iraq mess proves that the place is a magnet for terrorism -- just isn't selling. This is a hornets' nest that Bush's policy stirred up. GIs are still getting killed for a war that the American public is turning against.
Bush's vaunted Israel-Palestine "road map" is a path to nowhere. Colin Powell, the prudent internationalist in the nest of reckless hawks, has been reduced to a pathetic token. Barring some improbable breakthrough, photo ops of Bush in a flak jacket won't divert the spotlight from the real damage.
Then there's the economy. Most economists believe that the recovery will continue to be jobless right through next year. Corporations are in such a profit squeeze that they are cutting jobs faster than they are accumulating orders. Even more seriously, the Bush program of serial tax cuts plus militarism has pushed the deficit into the half-trillion range for the foreseeable future. Not only does that kind of deficit force cuts in public outlays that voters actually value; at some point, it starts pushing up interest rates.
Mortgage rates have already risen more than a point since last spring's lows. The Federal Reserve is largely powerless to set long-term rates, which reflect the market's expectations about future inflation. We have become complacent about living in an inflationless economy, but the spike in gas prices and health insurance costs is a reminder that inflation can suddenly break out. Rising interest rates could snuff out the stock market's tentative return to health.
An ordinary president would be reeling from these setbacks. But while Bush's stratospheric popularity ratings have returned to the normal range, he is no ordinary president.
For starters, he will have almost limitless amounts of money and will massively outspend his opposition thanks to unprecedented business investment in Republican politics and a half-baked campaign finance "reform" that backfired. He also has an incomparable team of political strategists, speechwriters, and spinners. And the press is still cutting him a lot of slack.
Second, the administration retains the capacity to time another "war of choice," as it did with the Iraq war drums on the eve of the 2002 midterm election. Another terrorist attack on American soil would rally patriotic support that Bush could willingly exploit. (At the same time, terrorist attacks overseas do not stir the same outrage and seem to demonstrate the overextension of Bush's policy.) Third, it remains to be seen whether Democrats will have a strong candidate.
Yet this election will rouse the base constituencies of both parties like no election in recent memory. Democrats are in a state of rage about the stolen election of 2000, the gutting of public services, the assault of liberties, the economic damage, the environmental pillaging, and the foreign policy calamity. Republican conservatives, meanwhile, view Bush as Reagan redux, only better.
Recent conventional political wisdom has it that elections are won by appealing to swing voters. But in the great defining elections of American history -- 1932, 1964, 1980 -- the winner rallied his base and then persuaded independent voters that he could be trusted to do the right thing for the country. The 2004 contest, I suspect, will be one of those elections. And here is Bush's greatest potential liability. His actual administration has been so unlike his moderate, conciliatory campaign of 2000 that even with the best campaign machinery, independent voters will be skeptical.
After years of declining turnout and passivity, 2004 will very likely see a reenergized electorate. Ultimately, the election will be a test of democracy itself: mobilized voters debating real substance versus imagery and organized money.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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