Coming Soon to a Campaign Near You: The Bush Surge

Posted May 28, 2004 at 2:22pm

It’s coming.

You can’t see it, hear it or touch it. It doesn’t show up on radar. And there aren’t even any signs that it is right around the corner. [IMGCAP(1)]

But you know it’s coming, even if nobody knows exactly when, or how.

The “it” is the Bush Surge — and it is already starting to build, even though it is not yet visible to the naked eye.

Media coverage being what it is, it is about time for reporters and analysts to decide that the president is stronger than he appears, and that he really has a decent chance at re-election. That will change the tone of the coverage, and, in turn, this new focus on President Bush’s latent strength — or Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) fundamental weakness — will improve the president’s standing.

I’m not sure what event or events will precipitate the turn in coverage, but at least a few things are possible.

A sharp drop in gasoline prices over a couple of weeks could produce such a rebound, as could a sign, however weak and tentative, that the international community is lending a hand to bring stability to Iraq.

So could the foiling of a terrorist attack inside the United States — a development that would give the president a chance to re-establish himself as a successful commander-in-chief in the fight against terror. Finding some of those weapons of mass destruction would also change the political calculations in a big way.

Bush once benefited from the public’s impression that Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror were one in the same. But now Bush is experiencing the downside of that linkage: The recent rash of bad news from Iraq has all but overshadowed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the U.S. military victory over the Taliban. A new terrorist attack could put the focus back on terrorism, where Bush is at his strongest.

While the president’s job numbers have dropped across the board, they remain far stronger on fighting terrorism than on foreign policy, the war in Iraq or the economy. The latest CBS News poll showed only 36 percent of adults approving of the president’s performance on Iraq and 36 percent approving of his performance on the economy. By contrast, a narrow majority, 51 percent, continue to approve of Bush’s performance in the war on terrorism.

The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows similar results, only bigger — 58 percent of adults in that survey approved of the president’s handling of terrorism. As in the CBS survey, a clear majority of Americans disapprove of Bush’s performance on the economy and in Iraq.

If the June 30 handover of authority in Iraq to local officials proceeds as the Bush administration insists it will, this transition could convince Americans that progress is being made to bring stability and democracy to the country, even in the face of additional car bombs and attacks by rocket-propelled grenades.

A return to the political battlefield could help too. Political reporters may start to discuss presidential poll numbers in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and even New Jersey, all of which indicate that Bush looks stronger than one would guess from his recent coverage. Personally, I’m skeptical about the president’s ability to carry those states, but you can imagine editors hungry for a new story to jump on a “surge” bandwagon.

Alternately, Kerry may do or say something that changes the focus at least partially away from Bush, or that reminds Republicans who are dissatisfied with the president that the alternative in November is Kerry, not Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

I can’t tell you whether the Bush Surge will be a real one or only a brief bounce, but campaigns invariably have an ebb and flow, and it seems about time for Bush to catch a break.

Democrats took the fight to Bush from the fall of 2003 to this past February. Then the president put Kerry on the defensive. Reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq turned the presidential race around by prompting some previous Bush supporters to question the war and to doubt that the Bush administration had a plan to move Iraq to democracy.

Everything is relative, and the past couple of months have been terrible for the president. That has helped create a rather low bar for the president to clear this summer, giving him an opportunity to be more effective and successful than he has seemed in the recent past. And if things brighten even slightly, Americans may begin to trust indications that the country is in the middle of a strong economic rebound, thus adding further to a Bush Surge.

As I noted, I don’t know exactly when the turnaround will take place or how much benefit will accrue to the president. But Democrats ought to be prepared for talk of a Bush Surge — regardless of whether it is real enough to boost Bush’s long-term prospects.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (www.rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).