Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said reports of his demise were much exaggerated, or was it Harry Truman in 1948? Well, the witticism could just as easily be applied to George W. Bush, who suddenly seems to be the subject of dire predictions from nearly every political undertaker and spin-doctor in Washington.
If one were to listen to the clownish Democratic mouthpiece James Carville and the rest of his “Democracy Group,” there is practically no chance Mr Bush can win in November 2004. Between the lines of their most current status report is the implied suggestion Mr. Bush should announce he will not seek re-election.
Even the highly respected independent demographer John Zogby describes Mr. Bush as a wounded chief executive, a 50-50 president in a 50-50 nation who is so much at the mercy of events it will be difficult for him to change by the time Americans go to the polls a year from now.
What is causing all this premature speculation about the end of the Bush dynasty are the latest polls showing a decline in the president’s overall approval rating and specifically in his handling of the economy and the efforts to reconstruct Iraq to the tune of at least $87 billion.
But wait a moment. Whatever happened to the old truism that a week can be six months in politics and a month can be a year? Mr. Zogby, for instance, doesn’t disagree that it still holds in most cases. He just opines that Iraq and the economy are issues that don’t lend themselves to quick resolution and, particularly in the case of Iraq, depend on outside forces beyond anyone’s ability to control.
Why even a new terrorist crisis in this country would not benefit the president’s standing as it did in the case of September 11, 2001, according to Mr. Zogby, who predicts voters would hold Mr. Bush responsible for not preventing it.
Hold on. There are several factors that make all these funereal predictions sort of like whistling past the cemetery, including the reminder it is difficult to beat someone with no one — especially if that someone has raised more money than anybody in the history of the presidency.
Also, there are 10 guys running around seeking the Democratic nomination and with the slight exception of one or two, most don’t seem to have captured much imagination. The first is front-runner Howard Dean who has become the darling of the liberal set despite the fact he is a member of the National Rifle Association. The second is the newest candidate, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who seems to have jumped close to the top of the leader board in a few days.
While both these candidates opposed the Iraq war, Gen. Clark’s views on this subject would have to be considered far more credible, given his distinguished military career. But he is hardly a household name, even though he commanded the U.S. forces in Bosnia. He also seems woefully unschooled on the domestic issues.
Another problem with writing off the president at such an early juncture is that the White House is as aware of the numbers and problems as those who are citing them. Even Mr. Zogby’s position seems to presuppose that the likes of White House political genius Karl Rove, armed with all that money, are going to be impotent when it comes to saving young George Bush from following old George into one-term embarrassment.
It wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Rove has been underestimated. It has been just about a year since he pulled off the stunning coup of leading Republicans into that rarest of achievements — increasing the congressional seats of a reigning president during a midterm election.
This certainly is not meant to discredit Mr. Zogby, although tweaking the likes of Mr. Carville is pleasant enough.
It may well be that the president faces a real struggle to overcome what seems to many suspiciously like a quagmire of Vietnamese dimensions in Iraq, and one from which it may be far more difficult to extricate ourselves. Unlike Southeast Asia, our interests are definitely tied to the Middle East. We cannot just pull out suddenly. Most Americans appear to understand this and support our presence there.
The economy on the other hand is a different problem, particularly the loss of jobs that Mr. Bush’s much heralded tax cuts don’t seem to have alleviated. Most U.S. elections turn on the economy, with candidates rising or falling on pocketbook issues.
But the president has options, including major job proposals that could help convince voters that, unlike the allegations about his father, he understands some people are suffering.
Before burying President Bush, the spinners should remember something else. As Mr. Zogby says, he still is a popular president. Americans do like him.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.