The past few months have been eventful and significant in the race for the White House. For George W. Bush, every indicator of political success except Iraq has been looking up. Just glance at these widely acknowledged Four North Stars of Presidential Politics:
Almost all measures suggest the economy is now improving, perhaps even booming. The lagging indicator continues to be lost jobs in the millions â€“ which gives Democrats hope for ’04. However, Democrats must be worried that the economy’s track appears very similar so far to 1983-84, when Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign got a tremendous boost from a strongly recovering economy. Add to this the recently passed MEDICARE package for prescription drugs for senior citizens. At the very least this takes a big issue away from the Democrats. Moreover, it gives President Bush a lot to crow about among the largest-turnout voting age bloc.
WAR AND PEACE
The one very dark cloud shadowing Bush’s reelection prospects: Iraq and its terrible toll in death and terror, could easily turn into the focus of the ’04 campaign. The unpopular wars of Korea in 1952 and Vietnam in 1968 essentially ended the presidencies of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, neither of whom even sought reelection when faced with likely defeat. Keep in mind that in 1968 the economy was in reasonably good shape, but Vietnam loomed larger in the minds of the electorate. If Bush and his team cannot convince Americans of the light at the end of the tunnel, it could be Bush’s presidential tunnel that comes to a premature end. On the other hand, the capture of Saddam Hussein certainly helps, and if Bush can quiet Iraqi terrorism, Iraq could turn into a presidential plus by Election Day.
Halliburton and mutual fund finagling do not rise to the level of costing President Bush in the election. To be hurtful, a scandal must directly involve a chief executive, and as yet, there is nothing in this category.
As we have long argued, the polarization over divisive social issues (abortion, gay rights, gun control, etc.) explains much of the division between the “traditional values” Red Bush states and the “tolerant values” Blue Gore states. An exceptionally controversial social issue has now been injected into the American political system in the past months: Gay marriage. While there are a few states where public opinion may favor gay marriage (including the originator-state, Massachusetts), public opinion in a large majority of states strongly opposes it. Assuming gay marriage is an issue â€“ and the Crystal Ball believes it will be a significant one â€“ it is very likely to be a net plus for Republicans.
In sum, it is much too early to install a general election frontrunner. But the initial signs are mainly favorable for President Bush. Iraq remains the obvious stumbling block to his reelection, and a surprise holiday trip to the troops did not change that reality.