It’s been quite a year. The biggest change was the transformation in the political capital of George W. Bush. He began the year with a considerable reservoir of good will, both from the immensely difficult election of 2000 and the events of 9/11.
He ended it as a hard-core Texas loner trapped in a lingering psychodrama with his father, the consensus-builder who preceded him at one remove as president of the United States.
As a result, Bush is surprisingly vulnerable to the candidacy of Howard Dean — despite the passage by the Republican Congress of a new pharmaceutical entitlement, despite an improving economy, despite the capture of Saddam Hussein. That’s just a guess, of course. I am not a political pro.
But in the days when I was writing for The Boston Globe, I was among the first mainstream columnists to raise the possibility that he would be not only be nominated in 2000, but elected. (“A Civil Way to End an Uncivil War,” I wrote in March 1998, too optimistic by half.) And, until recently, I thought it was highly likely that President Bush would be re-elected.
Now, I am not so sure.
The case against re-election rests on there being a general revulsion at Bush’s gambling tendencies. He has good instincts, but remarkably bad follow-through habits. Everything about the conduct of the war indicates that he greatly underestimated the difficulty of what he had undertaken (“Mission accomplished”). Everything about the tax cuts suggests he didn’t understand that it takes money to win a war.
And as for the chimera he is pursuing (“the ownership society”) while neglecting to fix the Social Security system or reform health insurance, has anybody seen economic adviser N. Gregory Mankiw?
The signs are growing that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld clan has been together too long. Twice before this extended family has bungled an incumbent’s re-election campaign – Gerald Ford’s in 1976, George H.W. Bush’s in 1992. Now the fevered logic of “whatever it takes” to avoid the same fate is building towards a Sophoclean climax to the third.
Karl Rove’s narrow political calculus is supposed to avoid it. And Rove is no James Baker. (Carbon dioxide sequestration in subterranean fissures and caves? Oh, never mind global warming; the administration could care less. That has to do with making the world safe to burn coal and thus winning the vote in West Virginia.)
But favor-trading may be no substitute in the next election for an appeal to character. It seems more likely than ever that Bush the decision-maker will be remembered for having been Truman-like, but it will be the embattled Truman at the end of the second term. He’s already had his surprising 1948.
Among the Democrats, the big surprise, of course, is the emergence of a credible candidate in former Vermont governor Howard Dean. What Dean has to do is to quickly gain the nomination and then run determinedly towards the center.
With respect to Iraq, that means borrowing a line from the ever-changeable John Kerry, and vowing to “stay the course,” rather like Dwight Eisenhower’s tough-minded negotiation of an armistice in Korea.
On the economy, that means judicious opposition to the Bush tax cuts. Dean has a good record as a centrist in Vermont. As it comes to know him better, the electorate may conclude that he can be trusted to govern the same way in Washington.
Will it happen? Who knows? It will be a most interesting year. It is always possible Osama Bin Laden will be tracked down, but that won’t change the fact that the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, too, has been botched. The more likely surprises are unpleasant ones: fallout from the rapid depreciation of the dollar; the potentially explosive issue of the off-shore outsourcing of jobs.
What does seem certain is that it’s too late for Bush to turn himself into anything resembling a figure of reconciliation – which is what got him elected in the first place. For a second election in a row, then, a grueling campaign probably will end in a neck-and-neck finish. Then it will be Shut Up and Count the Votes. It may come out differently this time.