As Election Nears, Is Everything Coming Up Roses for Bush?

Posted November 26, 2003 at 1:10pm

While the situation in Iraq continues to be a political problem for the White House and President Bush’s re-election numbers remain unimpressive, I can’t help but believe that things are lining up pretty well for the president.

[IMGCAP(1)]The economy appears to have turned the corner, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that the nation will have enough economic growth to produce substantial job growth during the next two and a half quarters.

No, the nation isn’t going to replace 2.7 million manufacturing jobs before Labor Day, but the White House may well be able to make the case quite credibly that the economy — and the job market — is on the upswing.

Iraq certainly is a mess now, and there is no alternative to using U.S. military personnel and billions of dollars in the effort to stabilize the situations there and in Afghanistan. The United States may be part of a “coalition of the willing,” but this country will certainly carry the overwhelming military and financial burden — and absorb most of the casualties — in the region for many months.

Still, if (and it is a big “if”) Bush can make the case before Labor Day that Iraqi security personnel and governmental authorities are starting to shoulder increasing responsibilities in that country, then he can argue that the worst is over for the United States.

And if the U.S. military can produce Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein dead or alive in the next 11 months, that news would surely boost the president’s prospects.

Of course, there are dangers for the White House. Increased casualties or terrorist attacks in Iraq will make it more difficult for the president to claim progress. And if the situation deteriorates toward civil war or the United States appears to cut and run from Iraq, Democrats will score more foreign policy points.

Whatever ultimately happens with the energy bill, the passage of a Medicare/prescription drugs bill means that Bush will seek re-election next year with two major tax cuts, a major education bill and a new prescription drug benefit for seniors to his credit.

Yes, Democrats will complain about the administration’s accomplishments, insisting that Republicans have underfunded education or sold out to the energy, insurance and drug companies. But Republicans begin with the advantage in that debate, especially with the AARP giving their seal of approval to Medicare reform.

While the prescription drug benefit won’t begin until 2006, seniors will receive a benefit card sometime next year — just as the presidential race is heating up. Not bad timing for Bush and the GOP.

And then there is the Democratic nominee for president. While the race for the nomination is not yet over, everyone I talk with agrees that the most likely nominee is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

While Dean is a determined, combative candidate who will take the fight to Bush, offer a strong contrast and, possibly, mobilize some new voters, he has more than his share of warts.

The former Vermont governor’s stance on three highly salient issues — the war, the Bush tax cut and civil unions for gays — makes it easy for Republicans to paint him as an unapologetic liberal. Dean’s call for more government regulation, which the Republicans will likely morph (fairly or unfairly, depending on your viewpoint) into a defense of red tape and big government, only adds to the stereotype.

Sure, Dean will stress his fiscal responsibility in the general election, but he isn’t likely to emerge unscathed from the Republican attacks. Even most Democratic consultants are worried that Dean gives too much ammunition to the Republicans.

Finally, the combination of Dean’s candidacy, the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage and the lightning-rod nature of the Bush White House would seem to ensure that GOP base constituencies will be energized next November.

Some conservatives are unhappy with the GOP-backed Medicare bill, but that dissatisfaction will evaporate quickly as issues such as gay marriage and the Democrats’ efforts to block a handful of highly visible federal judicial nominations take prominence.

But if the president’s re-election prospects seem to be improving, there are enough question marks to make the Democratic nomination valuable. Issues not on the radar screen could surface. The economy could turn down, taking new jobs with it. The situation in Iraq could deteriorate further.

Democrats will continue to attack the president’s priorities and performance, and some of their punches will likely find their mark. The presidential contest has not yet started, so it cannot yet be over. But it now appears that Bush may well be seeking a second term in a more favorable environment than the one that existed throughout much of 2003. That is good news for the White House.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.