With the capture of Saddam Hussein, Democrats are beginning to realize that Iraq may not be their best campaign issue. But they may not be able to avoid it. It's the issue that their primary voters are most passionate about.
Republicans welcome the focus on Iraq. "I look forward to making my case to the American people about why America is more secure today based upon the decisions that I've made," President Bush said at his December 15 news conference.
And why not? Until Saddam's capture on December 14, the American public had supported the war in Iraq but was critical of the U.S. handling of the situation in Iraq since the major fighting ended. Now there's been a huge jump in public approval of the occupation—from 42 percent in the November Gallup Poll to 65 percent in mid-December.
Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean asserted, "The capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer." Most Americans disagree. The mid-December Gallup Poll showed a majority, by 56 percent to 33 percent, endorsing the view that the war in Iraq has made the United States safer, although Dean's fellow Democrats were still inclined, by 48 percent to 40 percent, to say it hasn't.
The shape of the debate is becoming clear. Democrats say there was no justification for going to war. "We began a war that, in my view, wasn't necessary," presidential contender Wesley Clark said on December 14. Bush's response? Remember 9/11. "Here's what I took away from September 11, 2001," Bush said at the December 15 press conference, "that any time the president sees a gathering threat to the United States, we must deal with it."
Democrats say that Bush has isolated the United States. "He needs to go to the U.N. He needs to build a consensus. He needs to collaborate. He needs to communicate," Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., complained at the Democratic presidential candidates' debate in Phoenix on October 9. "He doesn't do any of those things."
Bush's response? "I don't agree that [the war in Iraq] is a dividing line," he said at the press conference. "I think this is a disagreement on this particular issue. And I know we can work together on a variety of other issues. I'll cite one example: Iran."
Dean and other Democrats say that Iraq has damaged U.S. security. Bush's response? "A free and peaceful Iraq is part of protecting America."
If the Iraq issue doesn't work for the Democrats, what else have they got?
There's the economy, stupid. That's worked before. More than 60 percent of Americans say that the nation's economy is not good, according to Gallup. But 60 percent also say that things are looking up. Which view counts more? Among people who think that things are bad but looking up, Bush leads a generic Democrat nominee by 2-to-1.
The Democrats' plans for boosting the economy start with repealing some or all of Bush's tax cuts. That leaves them open to attack. An anti-tax group is already running ads with the message, "Howard Dean says he'll raise taxes on the average family by more than $1,900 a year."
The federal deficit has reached epic proportions. Many Democrats are seizing on that. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut charged in October that the Republicans "pledged fiscal responsibility, but then what did they do? They ransacked the American people's treasury." Bush has a response: "We have a deficit because of, one, a recession, and two, a war." No mention of three, a tax cut.
Health care costs are surging, and the number of uninsured Americans has grown to almost 44 million. Republicans tried to inoculate themselves by passing a Medicare reform bill. Democrats claim that the Medicare legislation will backfire. "We estimate that about one-quarter of all senior citizens will be worse off virtually the day this bill passes," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said in November. But that may not be true, simply because most of the changes will not go into effect until 2006.
Republican congressional leaders are also promising new initiatives next year to expand health insurance coverage. "That's the next big challenge," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said just after Bush signed the Medicare bill. Democrats may complain that the GOP measures, mostly involving tax credits, are inadequate. But the spectacular failure of the Clinton health care plan leaves Democrats defensive on the issue.
Democrats are eager to make an issue of business scandals. Bush has "looked the other way while corporate crooks in the corner office have defrauded everyday investors and destroyed the retirement savings of countless numbers of workers," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., charged. Bush responds by adopting a familiar posture: He pledges to go after the wrongdoers.
If the Iraq issue does turn out to be central to the presidential campaign, it carries some risks for the White House. There's the risk of a badly timed photo op, like Bush's May 1 landing on the aircraft carrier. Or the risk of something going terribly wrong, comparable to the suicide truck bombing that killed 241 American marines in Lebanon in October 1983.
But Saddam's trial may also get under way before November. It will rivet public attention for weeks on the former dictator's atrocities. And that's exactly the focus the Bush White House wants.