Who can beat George W. Bush? First in Iowa, then in New Hampshire, then in states from South Carolina to Washington, all Democratic caucus or primary voters will be asking that question. Not all will vote their answer—some will vote for the candidate who best espouses their beliefs no matter his chances—but many will. Primary elections usually turn on "electability."
A just-released SurveyUSA poll shows Howard Dean leading Dick Gephardt in Iowa by 31 to 26, but the methodolgy of this poll is irregular, and other polls have shown him either tied with or slightly behind Gephardt. In New Hampshire, Dean is the clear front-runner. Anything can happen, but the informed buzz from pundits and party operatives is that one of them will be the nominee.
That they speak to historically distinct parts of the Democratic-primary electorate argues for a two-man race. Dean appeals to more upscale issue-oriented liberals and their college-age children angry over the war in Iraq and the Democratic leadership's failure to stand up to Bush on that and other issues, Gephardt to blue-collar interest-driven Democrats and older voters concerned primarily with economic security. Dean is the insurgent, Gephardt the regular—the classic antithesis of Democratic nomination fights.
Another candidate could emerge, but let's assume this primary sprint will come down to Dean vs. Gephardt. Which man would be the stronger candidate against the President?
They share a liability that makes them weaker candidates than the other Democratic prospects: they would repeal all of the Bush tax cuts. Senators Kerry, Edwards, and Lieberman, as well as General Wesley Clark, would repeal only the cuts for the wealthiest Americans, leaving in place the child tax credit and other elements of the cuts for the middle class. In the first presidential debate, if either Dean or Gephardt is the nominee, George W. Bush will point to his opponent and say, "If your family income is $40,000 a year, this man will raise your taxes by over $1,200"—and for once, he'd be telling the truth about the distribution of his tax cuts. Gephardt or Dean would counter, "Yes, Mr. President, but with that $1,200 we will fund health insurance and education programs worth much more than that to middle-income families." But the programs are promises; the $1,200 savings is cash in hand.
That debate moment is the best argument for nominating someone other than Gephardt or Dean.
The main issue difference between them is the Iraq war. Gephardt, as House Minority Leader, helped draft the language of the resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein. Recently he voted for Bush's $87 billion request to fund the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and make a down-payment on the rebuilding of both countries. Dean opposed the war and the $87 billion. According to the conventional wisdom, Dean is not electable because he opposed the war. But Dean can argue that, on the contrary, the polls suggest he is electable for just that reason.
Just a few months ago Bush's re-election seemed certain based on the war in Iraq. Now, "Bush's identification with the Iraq War is a net negative for his reelection," Ruy Teixeria, of the Century Foundation, concludes in his analysis of three polls conducted in early November. This reversal happened in three stages as the Bush Administration, having won the war, tragically miscalculated what it would take to win the peace. First Bush's approval ratings for his general handling of foreign affairs fell; then his ratings for handling Iraq fell; finally, in the most recent polls, his ratings for handling the "war on terror" have fallen beneath 60 percent for the first time since September 11. Bush has called the guerrilla war in Iraq "the central front in the war on terror," thereby linking failure in the one with failure in the other. The 79 percent of Americans who believe the war on terror either has not changed or has been worsened by Iraq have taken him at his word.
Bush's misstatements about Iraq's attempts to procure nuclear material, along with his unsubstantiated claims about Iraq's WMD and its "imminent threat" to the U.S., have also weakened his reputation for integrity, which, along with his handling of foreign affairs, was thought to be his main political asset. Fifty-three percent think he either withheld information about Iraq in the lead-up to war or lied. Only 42 percent see him as "honest and frank." Ominously for Bush, 60 percent of Independents hold these views.
More bad news from Iraq will only cause Bush's poll numbers to sink lower, and a recently leaked CIA report predicts that even worse news—more dead American soldiers, more bombed buildings, more chaos—may lie ahead. Iraq, in short, could become Bush's biggest electoral liability.