SECURITY AND CAMPAIGN 2000
Dana Milbank and Mike Allen contend that, contrary to conventional wisdom, President Bush can’t rely on national security issues to carry him to victory in 2004. While I agree with this, I disagree with their rationale.
One presidential adviser said the suicide attacks hours apart in Iraq and Israel, which undermined the two anchors of Bush’s ambitious effort to transform the Middle East, made Tuesday “by far the worst political day for Bush since 9/11.”
In one of the new Democratic charges, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), ranking minority member on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the images from Iraq are making it ever plainer to the public that Bush’s plan for a more peaceful world “has clearly not occurred.” On the contrary, he said, “the world is more apprehensive about our leadership.”
I would argue that, in a bizarre way, the opposite is true. Republicans have a huge natural advantage when security is a hot button issue. One reason Bush’s father lost in 1992 was that, with the Cold War won, military issues receded. The fact that the world is perceived as dangerous, while potentially damaging to this Bush’s approval ratings, makes the prospect of turning the reins of power to an untested challenger, let alone a Howard Dean type, more risky.
Independent experts see more political trouble than advantage for Bush in Iraq. “There is a substantial potential for the occupation of Iraq to become a deep political problem for Bush,” according to Ohio State University’s John Mueller, an authority on public opinion and war. If things go well, people will lose interest, but if things go badly, “people are increasingly likely to see the war as a mistake, and starting and continuing wars that people come to consider mistaken does not enhance a president’s reelectability.”
The matter is politically important to Bush because he has made the peaceful transformation of the Middle East the main justification for war in Iraq. With the failure to find forbidden weapons in Iraq, Bush and his aides have said the invasion of Iraq will allow it to become the linchpin of a stable and democratic Middle East. In one version of this argument, Bush said last week that in deciding to go to war in Iraq, he made “a tough decision to make the world more peaceful.” As a result, continued violence in Iraq and the Middle East would deprive the administration of another key justification for the war.
Bush seemed to acknowledge the political importance when he gave himself a deadline for showing results. “We’ve got a year and a while during my first term to make the world a more peaceful place, and we’ll do it,” he said earlier this month.
It is certainly true that the Iraq situation is risky. But the Bush team has done a good job of downplaying short-term expectations. Unlike Clinton in Bosnia, there was no promise that we’d be out of there in a year. The “this is going to take years” refrain has been rather constant. And, frankly, and hamhanded as some of the postwar reconstruction effort has been, it is almost a given that things will be much better a year from now–when the campaign kicks into gear–simply because of the low starting point.
I continue to believe that the economy is the most likely vulnerability. The Republicans’ natural advantage in security is matched by a Democratic advantage on economic issues. If the unemployment problem hasn’t corrected itself a year from now, President Bush could be in real trouble. Just like his dad.