- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

I was in the English countryside over the weekend at a gathering of Europeans and Americans trying to talk through the question of how to set rules for international order. But that was the official program. In the hallways, the dining room and the bars, the questions posed to the Americans (a politically diverse group) were all about handicapping the presidential election.

@Text.normal:I have taken to prefacing analytical political comments as follows: “I write about politics, so therefore, I’m wrong a lot.” On the other hand, from what I heard from other Americans answering the questions, including a couple who think the re-election of George W. Bush would be a national and indeed global catastrophe, our prognostication was converging. The book seemed to be settling on odds in favor of Mr. Bush winning of about 3-2.

Now mind you, things change. But you’ve got to start where you are. Here’s the baseline: We have an economy that seems to be growing very well but that is sluggish on the highly politically salient matter of job creation. We have the occupation of Iraq, which seems to be going somewhat better than it was six months ago. We have, relatedly, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction(WMD).The straight-line extrapolation is that the economy continues to grow strongly and create some new jobs; Iraq continues to make bumpy progress; and still no WMD.

The Democrats settled on a nominee relatively quickly, as they sought to do, and without great divisiveness, insofar as most of the aspirants’ energies were devoted to the attack on George W. Bush, not their fellow contenders. The party base is united and ready for the main event.

Some parts of the issue mix have been moving in the Democrats’ direction. Specifically, they have re-emerged as the favored party on education, and President Bush’s effort to win credit on health care matters with his Medicare prescription-drug entitlement seems to have amounted to little so far. The budget deficit is an embarrassment to Mr. Bush’s base supporters. Most important, perhaps, is the question of where the national mood is in relation to Mr. Bush’s self-description as a “war president.”

At the moment, security and terrorism worries are registering rather low when people are asked to say what concerns them. The post-September 11 national anxiety seems to have faded as the time without another attack on the U.S. homeland lengthened. That’s probably at least in part an indication of the effectiveness of the response to September 11, especially of the ongoing intelligence efforts at counterterrorism. That might earn a president some gratitude, but it also diminishes people’s sense of the threats out there. Some people see little more need for a “war president.”

One difficulty for Democrats is their prospective nominee himself. Democrats like to talk about structural reasons they can win, avoiding the subject of John Kerry. That is because Mr. Kerry is manythings,but charismatic is not one of them. His nationally televised remarks a week ago, upon sewing up the nomination Super Tuesday, were noteworthy only for their flatness and banality. Democrats contend that Republicans won’t make any headway portraying Mr. Kerry as the Massachusetts liberal he has been all his life; they sound like they’re trying to convince themselves. The first line of attack, already under way, is on his wavering views on major issues.

In truth, both parties seem pretty happy with the shape of the campaigns they are preparing to mount. Democrats think Republicans are vulnerable on tax cuts for the wealthy, and Republicans are happy to reply with a warning that Democrats will raise taxes. The Democratic candidate will be emphasizing issues other than security and terrorism, relying on his Vietnam service to inoculate him against Republican attacks, whereas the incumbent will be trying to elevate the salience of the security issues by reminding people that it’s a dangerous world out there.

Mr. Bush’s hopes for a breakout in this election probably ended with 1) the failure to find WMD in Iraq and 2) Democrats’ collective decision not to nominate Howard Dean. It looks quite likely that we’ll have closely divided blue states and red states again.

An election involving an incumbent is usually first of all a referendum on the incumbent. There’s a threshold test for the credibility of the challenger, which Mr. Kerry passes, then it’s mainly about the person in office.

With a strong economy and an increasingly functional Iraq, Mr. Bush should have no great difficulty in reminding voters about their security concerns by addressing what he has done to keep Americans safe. That gives him the edge.

Mr. Bush has seen some erosion in his ratings for trustworthiness, clearly a no-WMD depression. This is serious. If Mr. Bush does lose in November, I think that underlying it will be a sense of unease about a leader who has taken the country to war on the basis of a mistaken or misstated casus belli.

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