War! Good God Y’all, What’s it Good For?


Now that the war phase of the Iraq operation is winding down, it’s time for the Crystal Ball to return and assess the damage. Not damage on the ground, but the damage – or the boost – to various presidential candidates’ chances.

First, the DEMOCRATS.

Let’s remember how the last successful Democratic nominee handled a similar war. In 1991 Bill Clinton uttered this marvelously ambiguous, pre-“the meaning of is” statement about the congressional debate for authorization of the Persian Gulf War: “I guess I would have voted with the majority [for the war] if it was a close vote. But I agree with the argument that the minority made [against the war].” In other words, in true Clintonian fashion he managed glibly to avoid antagonizing either side, while giving both sides hope that he was secretly one of them. The Democrats for 2004 fall into three categories:

  • PRO-WAR: John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman.
  • ANTI-WAR: Howard Dean, Bob Graham, Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton.
  • CLINTONIAN: John Kerry.

The party activists are heavily anti-war, and this fact has been propelling Dean in particular. Yet it is possible that by Iowa caucus time, Democrats will be focused on domestic issues and willing to “forgive” or overlook the pro-war views of Edwards, Gephardt, and Lieberman. It’s also possible that John Kerry will reap the benefits of being Clintonian, of voting to authorize the Iraq war while speaking up against aspects of it and calling for “regime change” in the U.S., not just Iraq. (Principle of Democratic Politics: Anything said by a Democratic candidate that angers House GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay will benefit, not hurt, that Democratic candidate.)


As the Crystal Ball has argued before, any election involving an incumbent president is a referendum on that incumbent: thumbs up or thumbs down. In our view, three factors above all others affect the results of presidential elections: the economy, war and peace, and scandal. So far, scandal affecting this president is nowhere on the horizon. The economy is a question mark; for every economist who says there will be a double dip post-war recession, there is one who says the economy will be about the same as now (very slow growth) and another who says conditions will improve in time for November 2004. If the latter is true, George W. Bush very probably wins. If we are double-dipping in a major way, Bush probably loses. But what happens if there is the mildest of recessions or continued, hardly perceptible growth (with a poor stock market, little disposable income growth, and the like)?

Ah, this is where things get interesting. It was in this gray “Twilight Zone” that war-winner George Herbert Walker Bush lost his way to reelection. But he likely didn’t have to lose, had he recognized the conditions early enough, stopped having victory parades, sized up Bill Clinton for the real threat he was, and run an energetic, hard-hitting reelection campaign. (Never forget that Bush Sr. and his key aides sat in the Oval Office in 1992 and laughed uproariously as the president pointed to his chair and said, “Can you imagine Bill Clinton sitting here?”)

So a poor but not disastrous economy in 2004 means a close, hard-fought race for George W. Bush. And that’s where the war comes in. Unlike 1991, this war is not a discrete event. It is part of a continuum that began on Sept. 11, 2001 (the Twin Towers/Pentagon, Afghanistan, Iraq, who knows what else to come). The age of terrorism has reintroduced the national security card that had been lost with the fall of communism. McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis had convinced Americans that Democrats were not tough enough to be trusted with the country’s defense and security.

Communism’s demise made it safe for a Democrat to be elected president again, especially a “New Democrat” who said the right things about foreign policy. Not only has Sept. 11 taken the country forward to a fearful future, but also back to an insecure past. As in the age of communism, the war and peace factor in the age of terrorism is not concerned solely with a specific conflict – and how close it may be to an election, how popular or unpopular the conflict is, etc. Instead, war and peace has once again become a permanent part of our modern electoral landscape, a life-or-death fundamental that may be the equal of the economy, or at least the equal of an economy not mired in a deep recession.

If 2004 were 1992, George W. Bush would quite possibly be on his way to a defeat in his bid for a second term. Yet 2004 is more like elections between 1948 and 1988, when the Red Threat and the specter of nuclear annihilation vied with the economy for dominance in elections. We may have seen a bit of this new/old paradigm in the 2002 midterm contests, when the bad economy didn’t hurt the GOP, and the national security card helped President Bush increase his party’s numbers in both houses of Congress.

In sum, the Crystal Ball is celebrating (perhaps prematurely). Political aficionados always long for elections in the gray zone, elections that are not over before they start, elections without an insurmountable edge either for the “ins” or the “outs.” Could it just be that the reintroduction of the national security card in our war/peace calculation is what the political doctor ordered for 2004? (Click here for a quick review of post-WW II history of war and the presidency.)