Politics September 2003

Four More Years?

The invincibility question

"Is George Bush unbeatable?" Suddenly this summer that became the question du jour of cable TV and the Sunday talkfests. That it is being asked suggests that many consider it impossible that President Bush will lose to any of the current crop of Democratic candidates. From every standpoint—history, issues, money, persona—the defeat of George W. Bush in 2004 appears improbable.

Consider history. In the twentieth century seven Presidents were defeated or declined to run again, for one (or more) of four reasons: perceived failure as a war leader, economic distress, a revolt in the party, or a third-party candidacy that ruptured the incumbent's political base.

Harry Truman, in 1952, and Lyndon Johnson, in 1968, declined to run again. Both faced a major rebellion in the Democratic Party and a loss of public support after miring the United States in a seemingly unwinnable war in Asia.

Five were rejected. William Howard Taft was done in by the third-party campaign of his patron Theodore Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover was wiped out by the Depression. Gerald Ford presided over the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and was bedeviled by Ronald Reagan right up to the Kansas City convention. Jimmy Carter led the country through a year of ignominy in the Iranian hostage crisis and gave us 21 percent interest rates and 13 percent inflation. George H.W. Bush antagonized his base and watched Ross Perot walk off with the populist right in November.

It is the experience of the father that haunts the son, because the strong hand that George W. Bush has been dealt in 2003—successful war President, popular with the people, and no Republican rival or third-party challenger on the horizon—is the hand his father held in the summer of 1991.

In retrospect, the senior Bush was a successful President. In his first year he liberated Panama and the Berlin Wall came down. In his second he cobbled together a twenty-eight-nation coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. In his third he won the most decisive victory in U.S. military history, persuaded the Arabs to sit down with the Israelis at Madrid, and godfathered the reunification of Germany. Entering 1992, he could claim credit for having presided over America's successful conclusion of the Cold War and having helped to liberate 100 million people in Eastern Europe.

When Norman Schwarzkopf's triumphant Army of Desert Storm marched up Constitution Avenue in the victory parade in June of 1991, George Bush's approval rating had recently peaked, at 91 percent. Six months later Bush was scrambling to stave off humiliation in New Hampshire. The following November he was defeated, collecting only 37 percent of the vote. What went wrong?

Like Winston Churchill in July of 1945, Bush was a victim of his own and his country's success. With the defeat of communism, the Cold War coalition that had given the Republicans five victories in six presidential elections—and two forty-nine-state landslides—dissolved. Foreign policy, Bush's long suit, ceased to be central to national politics. As a voting issue it was off the table in 1992.

A second cause of Bush's defeat was the alienation of his base. The right had savaged Bush in 1980, when he made the strongest run of all the candidates seeking to deny Reagan the nomination. Elected President in 1988, he reciprocated, treating conservatives to some of the same dismissive contempt with which they had treated him—not only in his appointments but in his policies.

In 1990, at the behest of his budget director, Richard Darman, Bush threw over his "no new taxes" pledge and colluded with Hill Democrats to raise the top tax rates, which Reagan had cut back to 28 percent. In 1991 he went to the UN to declare that America's mission was to create a "New World Order." After the brutal battle to put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, Bush, at the urging of Senator John Danforth, embraced a civil-rights bill almost identical to the "quota bill" he had rejected. Small businessmen whose work force failed to meet some vague standard of diversity were forced to prove that they were not racists.

Then there were class and ideology. Reagan was Eureka College, Bush was Yale. Reagan was anti-government, Bush was big government. Reagan relished confrontation on matters of principle, Bush believed in compromise. Reagan's eyes misted over as he spoke of a "city on a hill," Bush was put off by "the vision thing."

Conservatives agreed: he was not one of us.

And Bush suffered an irreplaceable loss when Lee Atwater, his consigliere and ambassador to the right, died of a brain tumor. It was Atwater who had pulled George Bush's chestnuts out of the fire in 1988.

As of the end of July 1988, Michael Dukakis, just nominated at Atlanta, had opened up an 18-point lead, and Bush was deeply disliked by the media that wanted an end to the "Decade of Greed." But when Dukakis disappeared from the radar, conservatives—using issues poll-tested by Atwater—ripped into him for his membership in the ACLU ("Anti-Christian Liberties Union"), his hostility to gun ownership, his veto of a Massachusetts law to force schoolteachers to lead their students in the Pledge of Allegiance, and his release on furloughs of imprisoned felons, including Willie Horton, who brutalized and raped a woman in Maryland after fleeing while on a weekend pass.

Savaging Dukakis on these social issues all through August and the convention in New Orleans, the Republicans roared from 17 points behind to 8 ahead—a 25-point turnaround. By Labor Day, Bush had a seven-point lead that he never lost. It was Lee Atwater's greatest achievement.

But because Willie Horton was black and his victim was white, liberals for four years denounced an increasingly defensive Bush for having run a "racist campaign." To a country-club Republican, marinated in guilt over America's past, there is no more wounding charge. In 1992 Bush and James Baker III resolved to run a high-minded Republican campaign. No more Willie Horton ads. And with Atwater gone, Bush had no one to alert him to the rumbles on the right, and no one to tell him that survival depended on skinning Bill Clinton on the social issues, and on integrity and morality, where the Clintons were vulnerable.

The son, who saw all this happen, has gone to school on his father's mistakes and learned his lessons well.

Whereas his father broke his pledge and raised taxes, George W. has midwifed two of the three largest tax cuts in history. Whereas the father was contemptuous of conservatives, the son has courted them. Whereas the father vacationed in Kennebunkport, the son goes home to Crawford. Whereas the father is all Yale Yankee, the son is Midland-Odessa. Indeed, aides assure conservatives that although he remains his father's son, in his politics and policies George W. is Reagan's true heir.

All of which again raises the question: Is Bush beatable in 2004?

Right now, it appears most improbable. Not only has Bush won two wars in two years, but after 9/11—when he led the nation in mourning and resolve to avenge the atrocities—Bush bonded with the people in a way that his father never had. Like Reagan, he has an emotional hold on a vast slice of America, a hold that may be almost impossible to shake loose.

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