"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.
And not only has Bush taken pages out of the Reagan playbook, but he and his strategist Karl Rove have taken them out of the playbook of Richard Nixon, the real architect of the New Majority coalition that gave the Republicans control of the White House for a quarter century.
Just as Nixon financed the Great Society, George Bush has co-opted the best of the Democrats' issues. Throwing over conservative principle, he has colluded with Senator Ted Kennedy to enlarge and expand the powers of the Department of Education. Now he is working on prescription-drug coverage for seniors—the first entitlement program since the advent of Medicare. Thus he has fortified himself along the Democrats' traditional avenues of attack.
How can the Democrats beat him?
As Reagan used to say, there are simple answers—there just aren't any easy ones. The Democrats need to hold on to the share of the black and Hispanic vote that they carried in 2000, and to bring home, or deny Bush, the share of the white vote that he got in 2000. What are the simplest ways to accomplish this?
One, prevent a Green Party run, which in 2000 siphoned off almost three million votes that would have given Al Gore the presidency.
Two, make a novena for a third-party candidate to run to Bush's right. The populist George Wallace held Nixon to 43 percent of the vote in 1968 and almost cost him the presidency. With Wallace out in 1972, Nixon rolled up 61 percent. Without a populist candidate on the right in 1988, Bush senior carried 53 percent. With Ross Perot in 1992, he carried 37 percent.
Though some in the media may portray George W. Bush as a right-wing extremist, he is surprisingly vulnerable to a challenge from his right. Issues: his soaring deficits; his preferential option for the rich; his sellout of conservative principle to embrace big government; his failure to protect America's borders and control immigration; his cave-in on the assault-gun law; his concessions to the gay Log Cabin Republicans; his refusal to put a stop to race preferences and reverse discrimination; his free-trade zealotry, which has helped to kill one of every eight manufacturing jobs in the United States while creating jobs in China; and, potentially the most explosive, his "quagmire" in Iraq. If U.S. soldiers are still dying from sniper fire and ambushes in Iraq in September of 2004, Bush could be vulnerable to the campaign slogan "Support Our Troops—Bring Them Home Now!"
Continued casualties would also raise anew the questions of why we went into Iraq in the first place, who "cooked the books" on the intel, who misled us about the weapons of mass destruction. The President dismisses this as revisionist history. But after World War I—which produced Bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism—the revisionist historians, who indicted the "merchants of death" and "British propagandists" who had "lied us into war," carried the day.
The Democrats are paralyzed in making a case against Bush on most populist issues because they agree with him on so many: war in Iraq, free trade, affirmative action, open borders, big government, amnesty for illegal aliens, foreign aid, gay rights.
Indeed, it has been the great success of Bush-Rove to talk the talk and affect the swagger of cowboy conservatives while occupying the center and the center-left and crowding out the moderate Democrats. When Senator Kennedy is hailing the President's "No Child Left Behind" education program and celebrating his prescription-drug plan, the only Democrats who can offer a clear alternative are too far left to carry a southern state.
The Bush-Rove strategy will work only as long as the right grins and bears it. But with the Beltway right having been declawed, neutered, and housebroken long ago, with no Republican challenger, and with no third party visible on the right, the strategy appears to have worked, and Bush appears to have dodged the bullet that killed his father's presidency.
This reduces the hopes of the Democrats to three possibilities, over which they have no control.
First is a continuance of the jobless recovery over which Bush has presided, in which three million private-sector jobs have vanished since he took office. But with interest rates now slashed by Alan Greenspan to one percent, the deficit at $400 billion and rising, the third largest tax cut in history about to take effect, and a falling dollar propelling exports, even pessimists are predicting growth of four or five percent for 2004.
Second is a souring of America's victories in Afghanistan and Iraq by continued and widening combat in which Americans are dying every day. Our tolerance for that kind of war has not been tested since Vietnam. A June Washington Post poll showing that 44 percent of the nation already finds the casualty rate in Iraq intolerable does not bode well for Bush, or for the country—especially with Arabs and Muslims from outside Iraq turning up in firefights.
Third is a major scandal of the kind that has bedeviled Republican Presidents, though usually in their second terms: the Sherman Adams affair, Watergate, Iran-contra. Here Bush seems most vulnerable to revelations either of misreading intelligence prior to 9/11 or of cherry-picking intelligence to make a case for war. In Britain the issue may yet prove fatal to Tony Blair.
But events may conspire to kill Democratic hopes. If some terrorist horror on the scale of 9/11 occurs, how many Americans will rise as one man to cry, "Get me Howard Dean"? Will they not, rather, reflexively rally to the tough guys who win wars—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell—just as Israelis rally to Ariel Sharon each time a new atrocity is perpetrated by Hamas?
From the standpoint of geography, too, it is difficult to see how the Democrats can do it. In forty years they have elected three Presidents, all from the South. Although three of the potential nominees are southerners (John Edwards, of North Carolina; Bob Graham, of Florida; General Wesley Clark, of Arkansas), none has broken out of low single digits nationally and none is running better than fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the voting is just five months off. Today Bush would sweep every southern state, and he now leads Edwards, Graham, Richard Gephardt, and John Kerry even in their home states.
The Bush team has a war chest unrivaled in presidential history. The Democrats are scratching for cash. Bush also has something Nixon and Reagan never did: what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "second and third echelons of advocacy." Conservatives, libertarians, and populists of the right dominate talk radio, the Internet, and the cable-TV channels that are nibbling the network news to death, and they are fully competitive on the op-ed pages of the national press.
Finally, there are the debates. They were decisive in the victories of John F. Kennedy in 1960, Carter in 1976 (after Ford's gaffe on Poland), Reagan in 1980, and Bush in 2000, when Gore booted it away. The last best hope of a Democratic Party to erase its deficit in a single night is the possibility that the President will stumble or his opponent will appear masterly or set the country afire with his passion, charisma, or ideas. But it is difficult to see how a Gephardt, Kerry, Dean, or Joseph Lieberman could do that in a match against a newly confident and assertive George W. Bush.
Can Bush be beaten? Assuredly—but absent celestial intervention, maybe not by any of the current crop of Democratic candidates. As Damon Runyon observed, the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.