Maybe It's Not the Economy

In a presidential election, the economy rules, right? Look at what happened to President Bush's father. George H.W. Bush's great surge in popularity from his victory in the Persian Gulf War vanished when he ran for re-election in 1992. The stupid economy brought him down.

This year, the economy is picking up. "We've added 900,000 jobs over the last three months, and 1.4 million jobs since last August," President Bush announced with pride recently. Economists have devised mathematical models to make political forecasts. The best-known, that of Yale professor Ray Fair, predicts that with an economy this good, Bush should win by a landslide—with more than 58 percent of the vote. (See

But Bush isn't doing nearly that well in the polls. Last week's Gallup Poll showed him drawing 49 percent of the vote and in a statistical dead heat with John Kerry, at 48 percent. "Something new may be going on that means the [old] equation is not that good anymore," Fair told USA Today.

Economic forecasts work, except when they don't. There's nothing new about that. In every presidential election from 1940 through 1972, the main issue was not the economy. It was foreign policy: a world war in the 1940s, the Cold War in the 1950s, and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early '70s.

The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates focused obsessively on world affairs. "Can freedom in the next generation conquer, or are the Communists going to be successful? That's the great issue," Democrat John F. Kennedy asserted. The economy was secondary. Richard Nixon said as much. "We cannot discuss our internal affairs in the United States without recognizing that they have a tremendous bearing on our international position," the Republican vice president maintained.

Since 9/11, foreign policy has once again dominated the national agenda. Foreign policy is supposed to be Bush's issue. But the war in Iraq has changed that. Suddenly, Bush finds himself on the defensive on national security issues. "Our military should never, ever be overextended and put in harm's way because we decided to go it alone," Kerry declared last week.

For more than a year after the major fighting ended in Iraq, most Americans thought that the United States had done the right thing in sending troops. As recently as early June, according to Gallup, 58 percent of those surveyed rejected the view that the war was a mistake. Now the same thing seems to be happening with Iraq that happened with Vietnam in 1968. It was in 1968, after the Tet offensive, that a majority of Americans began to endorse the view that the Vietnam War was a mistake. The end of last month marked the first time that most Americans—by 54 percent to 44 percent -- said that the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq.

What's driving the disillusionment? Two things.

First, the public is beginning to separate Iraq from the war on terrorism, despite the Bush administration's efforts to link the two. "The killers know that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror," Bush said on June 1. In April 2003, most Americans agreed with that view. Back then, 58 percent thought the war in Iraq made the United States safer from terrorism, according to Gallup. Now most Americans (55 percent) think the war in Iraq has not made us safer.

Second, last month the 9/11 commission reported having found "no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." The late-June Gallup Poll found that, for the first time, most Americans reject the view that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks (51 percent to 44 percent). Many Americans who initially supported the war feel misled. One of them is Kerry, who said on June 17, "The president owes the American people a fundamental explanation about why he rushed to war for a purpose that, it now turns out, is not supported by the facts. And that is the finding of this commission."

The public is turning against the war in Iraq as things are beginning to look up for Bush on the economy. Last month, Bush's approval rating for his handling of the economy hit its highest mark since January, rising from 41 percent to 47 percent. Bush now gets higher marks for his handling of the economy than he does for his handling of the situation in Iraq (42 percent approval). But Iraq is the issue that seems to be driving this campaign. "Every time there has been positive news on the economy, it has been overwhelmed by news out of Iraq," Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd told The Wall Street Journal.

The Bush campaign hopes that the handover of power will get Iraq out of the news. Lots of luck, Democrats say. "The [Bush] administration would have you believe that we are about to turn over authority in Iraq to a new government, a handover that will signal the end of America's occupation," Kerry said. "But, in reality, we are no closer to a real Iraqi government capable of providing security for its people, making laws, or ensuring freedoms. This is still America's problem."

A bad economy doomed the presidency of Bush's father. But a good economy may not save this President Bush, because sooner or later, a sign is likely to go up in the Kerry war room that says, "It's Iraq, stupid."