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.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Middle East, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John says:

    Again, I hope it will be corrected. But given the trends, it’s pretty hard to see how it will.

  2. Paul says:

    Anyone who has taken 1 or 2 economics classes knows that unemployment lags behind growth after a recession. It has happened after every recession since WWII. The trend is on Bush’s side. Unemployment is already going down.

    The reason the Dems are harping on unemployment is because it is the last to recover. But it is a timing issue and the Dems are on the wrong side. “Clinton’s recession” will be long gone and the employment numbers will catch up long before the election.

    And Bush will be all too willing to take credit. (even if it ain’t his doing)

    The economic news gets better every day. Even Paul Krugman admited that this weekend.

    It is just foolish for a political party to run against a recovering economy 2 years out.

    Forget which party is doing it…. it is just tactically a dumb plan.


  3. John says:

    Uh, one year out. Or have you forgotten that 2004 is next year? Geesh.

  4. John says:

    Hey, OMB Watch has another fine report out, 2001 Recession In Perspective: Economic and Budget Situation

    The budget outlook is particularly troubling. Despite the relatively small drop in total output, federal government revenue has dropped to record levels, and record surpluses have turned into record deficits in a few short years. Comparisons with past recessions show that the deterioration in the budget situation is unlikely to be due to the economic situation, and that current tax and budget policy are likely to blame.

    Check out figure 3 of the paper. Looks rosy, no?

  5. James Joyner says:


    Right. And the only people paying attention the next year or so are political junkies. Most voters aren’t going to get excited at all until the field is narrowed down to two and the conventions are upon us. So, the perception that matters is about August of 2004. Recovery takes place after that, it’s too late to sink in perception-wise.

  6. Paul says:

    John did the dems just start using that line today?


  7. John says:

    Naw, it’s just a nasty meme I’ve caught by hanging around Righty blogs 🙂 But James has my point. It won’t matter if the recovery happens in 2005, politically. Just my useless opinion, but the window has been missed on the jobs front. My bet is that with all the balls in the air right now in this administration, they’re going to be doing fantastic if they can just keep from dropping them, much less actually do anything useful about any of the situations. And given the tendency of entropy and the god Murphy, I don’t think they’re going to succeed. You can dodge a million bullets, but it only takes one to ruin your entire day. Make me happy? Absolutely not! Will I use it for political advantage? Absolutely.

  8. Paul says:

    John I have some bad news….

    Indicators say U.S. economy gaining steam

    August 22, 2003
    NEW YORK — The economic recovery, until now sluggish, is poised to gather speed and strength in coming months, according to a closely watched gauge of the nation’s business climate.

    The Conference Board reported Thursday that its Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose 0.4 percent in July to 112.5, in line with analysts’ expectations. The rise in July’s reading followed a revised 0.3 percent increase in June.

    The report coincided with the government’s release of figures showing that first-time claims for unemployment insurance declined last week.

    Sure you can use google to find some pointy headed geek that predicts goom and doom. But never sell the U.S. economy short.

    Unemployment is the lagging indicator but it is already turning around.

    But keep hoping for economic diaster. Maybe you will get lucky.


  9. John says:

    Uh, sure. Just what I’m hoping for.

  10. Richard P. says:

    Isn’t Iraq and the whole concept of “invade Iraq and the entire Middle East will be better all around” the Bush administration’s baby? All of a sudden in the midst of trouble they’re going to cast that issue aside, are they? They’re going to try and get everyone to think along the lines of “Bush brought us economic prosperity…” instead, are they? The Iraq invasion is part and parcel of this administration. If it succeeds, they get the credit but if it fails there’s no way they can run away from it or get people to forget about it. Besides, the grand GOP tradition has always been to be the party of national security as opposed to the party of economic and domestic issues and I can’t imagine at all that they won’t want to keep the theme of national security at the forefront of the whole discussion. If they want to make something else their main issue and go the Carville-istic route then I have to think that that will be very awkward indeed. If they start up a discussion of economics, then they open up a whole different can of worms and one that they’re really not used to dealing with. Do they really want to do that? Are they ready for “were all these mega tax cuts tilted toward the very wealthy really what the large majority of the American people wanted?” Or “what happened to the surplus?” Is Social Security in greater danger than ever? How about health care and education? Do Republicans really care at all about the working class or do they only care about their friends with Enron, Worldcom, Halliburton, etc.? When are those fat cat white collar criminals from Enron et al. going to be indicted, anyway?

    What happens if neither party is in position to run on the issues that are the traditional ones for each party? My gut feeling is that in times of great concern about national security there would be a general disinclination among the voters to make a change at the top unless there’s a widespread perception that the Bush policy has been just a tremendous failure. OTOH things aren’t going well with the Iraq situation and the administration has done everything to invite scrutiny on itself by undertaking such a roll of the dice as it did. The whole undertaking was actually anything but conservative and if it fails they’re very vulnerable to a backlash from conservatives of the libertarian stripe who will see the administration’s clamp-downs on civil liberties as unacceptable and not worth tolerating as well as conservatives worried about spending as well as conservatives fearful of the U.N. if they eventually have to turn to the U.N. to help bail out the Iraq situation.

  11. Paul says:

    Isn’t Iraq and the whole concept of “invade Iraq and the entire Middle East will be better all around” the Bush administration’s baby? All of a sudden in the midst of trouble they’re going to cast that issue aside, are they? They’re going to try and get everyone to think along the lines of “Bush brought us economic prosperity…” instead, are they?

    Richard I think you are reading WAY too much into the bantering of nobodys on a blog. I doubt anyone here is qualified to speak on what that administration wants to hang its hat on.

    The point was that Dean and the rest of the Dems are on the attack over the economy. I believe they are making a mission critical mistake counting on a bad economy that is WELL on the way to recovery.

    But just because I think the economy will not be the silver bullet for the Dems has ABSOLUTLY nothing to do with what the Whitehouse message will be.

    But if I am allowed to GUESS what it will be, they will be quite proud of the war on terror and will be very willing to tout their successes. But if you think 43 learned nothing from the defeat of 41 you ain’t been paying attention. The economy will be important to thier campaign.


  12. John says:

    I love how you swat away every question with a brush of Ad Hominem attack, Paul. The scorn is palpable.

    But regardless, I think the Republicans going to have a hard time running on an economy that will likely only recover jobs in 2005. A miracle could happen, sure. But you’ve already blown your wad with the tax cuts aimed at the long term. We don’t need a silver bullet, and we’re not dumb enough to think that this is like his father’s reelection. After all, his father actually won the popular vote. <heh> So GW is already going into the election with a severe deficit (and don’t lambaste me over the appointment. I’m well over that issue).

    Iraq is turning to sh*t, and I’m certainly praying for a miracle there. But since even my fundamentalist Christian Republican parents are struggling mightily over the WMD lies and the resulting chaos, you have to pray the “September Surprise” Rove is coming up with turns some connections up with unquestionably solid Al Qaeda connections or actual WMDs. Otherwise, the Republicans are toast. Afghanistan is well on its way to turning back to sh*t and there’s serious talk of doubling the number of troops deployed to 300K. The military is getting mighty peeved, and Republicans are losing big percentages of other key demographics like Cubans, Hispanics, Arabs and even evangelical Christians. They don’t have to go solid Democrat. Just enough to swing the vote Dem and pick up the electoral seats of that state.

    So, you’d better be sweating Paul. The aura of inevitability is laughable, and it’s not going to sway anyone anymore. You’re going to actually have to work for it. This election is going to be tight.

  13. Anonymous says:

    The point was that Dean and the rest of the Dems are on the attack over the economy. I believe they are making a mission critical mistake counting on a bad economy that is WELL on the way to recovery.

    The issue isn’t economic recovery so much as it’s job creation, job security and economic and quality-of-life prospects for the majority of us.

    The Bush tax cuts had at least as much to do with an overall philosophy regarding taxation, i.e. because there’s a surplus we should have a king-sized tax cut (tilted toward the very wealthy), ‘double-taxation’ on dividends is inherently wrong, as they did with trying to stimulate the economy. They’ve done these things because they’re following standard right-wing ideology, not because they’ve wanted to honor the wishes of the majority or because they care a lot about what kind of effects that the working class would feel. It’s far from clear that most people really wanted tax cuts and specifically the kind of tax cuts Bush called for as opposed to using the surplus to pay off the federal debt or on health care or other services. Unfortunately, with the deficit mushrooming there is definitely an issue there and there will be some effects that people will be having to endure years from now. If the Democrats don’t want to raise it, they’re doing a disservice to the American people and to their own heritage of being the party who specializes in economic and quality-of-matters for those who aren’t in the elite circle.

    The Democrats’ difficulty is that people have to engage in rational thought in order to grasp the issues that favor them and they’re either timid about or ineffective with connecting with voters on a purely visceral basis whereas the GOP are masters at that with all their flag-waving, etc.

    But if I am allowed to GUESS what it will be, they will be quite proud of the war on terror and will be very willing to tout their successes. But if you think 43 learned nothing from the defeat of 41 you ain’t been paying attention.

    Everything that George W. Bush has done has seemingly been to try to rectify the misdeeds of his father, from currying favor with the hardline social conservatives to cutting taxes to going after Saddam. They will, no doubt, look to remind everyone that Republicans have been the party who specializes in social conservatism, cutting taxes and, above all, national security matters. This administration probably more than any other in recent history is all about ideology and attitude; that’s just what they are and that’s all they are. They’re trying very hard to be Reagan all over again but I’d say that they go a lot farther to the right than Reagan did. Also, if either Dean or Wesley Clark wins the Dem nomination, neither one of those would be the kind of gentle, yielding opposition that Mondale was in 1984.

  14. Richard P. says:

    The above was from me.