Political Fallout Comes Later

Bush and War Aftermath

Posted March 19, 2003 at 5:57pm

Two USA Today/CNN/Gallup polls published Tuesday were instructive.

One showed two-thirds of all Americans supporting President Bush’s war on Iraq. The other showed Bush’s 2004 re-election prospects less than rosy: In a hypothetical match up with an unnamed Democrat, 45 percent of voters queried said they preferred Bush, and 42 percent opted for the “generic” Democrat.

The outcome of the looming war, of course, will almost certainly affect those re-election numbers in the months ahead.

In the short term, if history is any guide, they will probably go up. Americans always rally around their presidents in times of war, at least initially.

But experts say that how a war is executed — its duration, the number of casualties, and the aftermath at home and abroad — are better barometers of a president’s ultimate political fate.

In Iraq, the United States is expected to achieve a swift and decisive military victory. But at what political and geopolitical cost? What hazards will a war waged without broad international support unearth when it comes to homeland security and long-standing diplomatic alliances?

“What matters for Bush is not what people think now or six months from now, but what they think 16 months from now,” said Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor. “Opinion can turn easily in time for the 2004 election. The question is, what price victory and what happens next? That’s why this is a political gamble for Bush. He will pay a price or get the political credit as much from the aftermath of the war as the war itself.”

Twentieth-century history is a useful guide. President Woodrow Wilson won re-election as the peace candidate in 1916, but half a year later, the United States was embroiled in World War I. In 1918, American voters installed Republican majorities in Congress that were to last until the Great Depression.

In 1920, the GOP-led Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, which Wilson promoted, and several months later the country sent former Ohio Sen. Warren G. Harding (R) to the White House.

Despite electing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to an unprecedented third term in 1940, just as World War II was spreading through Europe and Asia, the Democrats lost 29 House seats and nine Senate seats in the mid-term elections just two years later, after the United States had entered the war. But Roosevelt recovered to win a fourth term in 1944, as Republicans’ growing isolationism and lack of coherent foreign policy hurt them while the war raged on. In that same election, the Democrats regained 29 House seats, though they made no gains in the Senate.

In the early 1950s, Americans initially supported the Korean War, but after the Chinese became involved and President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Truman paid the political price. The public’s disenchantment with the war was a major factor in Truman’s decision not to seek re-election in 1952. Not only was Dwight Eisenhower elected president that year, but the GOP gained 21 House seats and one Senate seat.

The Vietnam War has frequently been called a quagmire, and it was certainly that for Lyndon Johnson when he was president. Like Wilson before him, LBJ was widely considered the “peace” candidate in his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, but things quickly began to unravel. The Republicans won smashing victories during the 1966 mid-term elections, and Johnson stunned the world by announcing that he would not seek re-election in March 1968. Republicans held the White House for five of the next six presidential elections.

The Persian Gulf War was a singular triumph for the first President George Bush in 1991, but a year later, with the economy in tatters, Bush wound up losing his re-election bid. That knowledge haunts many Republicans today.

Lichtman said Americans’ support for war tends to wane “either when the goals are not clear or when the objectives do not appear to be achieved.”

This was clearly the case in Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Korea. Public opinion on Vietnam turned from positive to negative in the space of about 18 months, Lichtman said. Public opinion turned on Korea in less than a year (and many Americans thought it would lead to the outbreak of World War III).

In the era of 24-hour cable TV and the Internet, American opinion could turn a lot faster today.

Often, regardless of the military victory, a president’s full attention to war can hurt him on the domestic front, as the elder Bush learned so bitterly.

It is possible, Lichtman suggested, that when the war with Iraq is over, Bush will take a page from history and continue fighting somewhere else. When World War II ended, the Democrats — and Republicans — quickly pivoted to fight Communism. In much the same way, Bush may shift his attention from Iraq to the other members of his “axis of evil” — North Korea and, possibly, Iran.

The political outcome of this war is so hard to predict, Lichtman said, because the United States is in the unprecedented position of going to war without being attacked, without an ally or neutral nation being attacked, and without many allies in its corner.

“I call this a moment of historical discontinuity,” Lichtman said. “This is more profound than Vietnam. It’s probably the most profound period of discontinuity since the beginning of the Cold War.”

But if there are long-term political risks for President Bush, there are also short-term risks for the Democratic minority in Congress.

“Look at the pathetic Democrats — what are they going to do?” Lichtman mused. “They support Bush, they’re just tagging along. If they don’t support Bush, they hurt the war effort. Their voices aren’t being heard at all.”