Bush's Vanished Capital

"What did you do during the war, Daddy?" For politicians of the Vietnam War generation, that's the question that won't go away. But it is also one whose answer usually doesn't seem to matter.

Dan Quayle confronted the question in 1988, when he was named George H.W. Bush's running mate. Asked by a reporter, "Do you think it's going to be a handicap in the campaign that you didn't fight in Vietnam?" Quayle responded, "No, I do not." He was right. It wasn't—not just because he served in the National Guard, but also because Vietnam was a deeply unpopular war.

The question came up again when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992. "I did not do anything illegal or wrong in the draft," Clinton explained just before the New Hampshire primary. "I opposed the Vietnam War." The issue didn't keep him from winning, either. The Cold War had just ended, and the main issue on voters' minds in 1992 was the economy, not national security.

Questions about George W. Bush's National Guard record surfaced briefly at the end of the 2000 campaign. The Gore campaign dispatched two war veterans, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, to raise questions about Bush's service in the National Guard. "What we've got here is a series of things that really destroy one of the most powerful arguments that Governor Bush is making," Kerrey charged, "that 'My character is superior to my opponent's.' "

Once again, the issue didn't seem to matter. Voters made allowances in the case of Vietnam. National security was still not a major concern. And with Clinton in the White House, Democrats were reluctant to make a big deal out of Bush's military service, even though the story about gaps in his National Guard record had been published months earlier.

Now John Kerry is the Democratic Party's prospective nominee. That changes everything. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe raised the issue of Bush's National Guard record on February 1, saying, "I look forward to that debate when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard."

Democrats are thrilled at the prospect of being able to throw Republicans on the defensive in the culture wars. Filmmaker Michael Moore hyped the allegations when he endorsed retired Gen. Wesley Clark in January. "The general versus the deserter!" Moore exclaimed. "That's the debate we want to see!"

Democrats are taking a calculated risk by making an issue of Bush's military record. He's the commander-in-chief, after all. But the issue may work this time, not just because the Democrats have a war hero, but also because the Republicans have a war—an increasingly unpopular war—and a president with a growing credibility problem coming out of that conflict.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted on February 10-11 found that the percentage of Americans who describe Bush as honest and trustworthy is down to a bare majority, 52 percent—a 7-point decline since late October. Bob Kerrey was right when he argued in 2000 that the public's perception of Bush's character is what got him elected. But the continuing controversy over Iraq has damaged Bush's image. Most Americans in the Post/ABC poll (54 percent) now think that, to make the case for war, the Bush administration intentionally exaggerated the evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Moreover, the commission that the president appointed to investigate intelligence failures may have the wrong mandate. By 53 percent to 35 percent, the public thinks the problem is not the accuracy of the intelligence, but the way the Bush administration used that intelligence. The Post/ABC poll reports that, for the first time, Americans who think the war in Iraq was not worth fighting (50 percent) outnumber those who say it was (48 percent).

In the wake of his February 8 Meet the Press interview and amid continuing controversy over his National Guard record, Bush has a job-approval rating of 50 percent in the Post/ABC poll and 51 percent in the latest Gallup Poll. Both figures are down nearly 10 points since the beginning of the year. When a president's job approval dips to 50 percent, his re-election is thrown into doubt.

Bush had a huge supply of political capital after 9/11, much as his father did in 1991 after winning the Persian Gulf War. The first President Bush was widely criticized for not investing his capital in a bold political initiative. Unlike his father, this President Bush has used his capital. He invested it in going to war in Iraq. These polls suggest that his political capital has all been spent on Iraq. It's gone.

On February 11, White House press secretary Scott McClellan expressed exasperation with the continuing focus on the president's National Guard records. "I certainly hope that this level of discourse is not a reflection of what the American people can expect from the Democratic Party over the duration of the campaign," McClellan said.

Don't bet on it. The Democrats now have standing to play the military card. John Kerry was on both sides of the issue that split the Vietnam generation. He was a war hero and an anti-war hero.

In this campaign, for once it's not the Democrats who have to feel defensive about the Vietnam era.