The Magazine

Why Bush Is Losing

And how he can turn it around.

Jul 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 42 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
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THE NOVEMBER ELECTION won't be about the future of Iraq. John Kerry's selection of John Edwards, who joined Kerry and a majority of Senate Democrats in voting to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is merely the final confirmation of the Kerry campaign's decision to remove forward-looking Iraq policy from the roster of issues in the fall campaign.

If Kerry had wanted to argue the Richard Clarke/Howard Dean thesis that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal blunder, his course of action would have been simple. He would have picked as a running mate Florida senator Bob Graham, or someone else who opposed the move into Iraq, and explained his own vote to authorize the invasion as a mistake, based on the same faulty intelligence that misled George W. Bush and Tony Blair about the presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Then the debate over Iraq would have dominated the fall campaign.

In the four months since he clinched the Democratic nomination, John Kerry in his methodical way has moved heaven and earth to make sure such a debate never happens. He favors the Allawi interim government, the U.N. resolution of support for that government, the national elections this coming January, the writing of a democratic constitution by the winners of that election, and an American military presence for as long as our troops are needed to provide security for Iraq's democratic transition. In other words, his position is no more than a millimeter from that of President Bush.

Looked at another way, four months ago the conventional wisdom was that Kerry would downplay his 2002 vote to authorize Bush to invade. Instead, he has decided to play down his 2003 vote to deny money for U.S. operations in Iraq.

There are two corollaries to Kerry's unobtrusive but decisive repositioning on Iraq. (1) George W. Bush has won the war debate, or at the very least is continuing to dominate it. (2) Kerry's me-too hawkishness has hurt him in the virulently anti-Bush Democratic base very little if at all. Today, Kerry is well positioned to defeat a president who, in his response to the mass murders of 9/11, has eliminated the anti-American rogue states of Afghanistan and Iraq, achieved breakthroughs on the long-term realignment of Pakistan and Libya, and set a reluctant Middle East on a path toward democracy that goes far beyond anything achieved or even talked about in the past.

This isn't supposed to be happening. Decisive, event-making presidents are not supposed to be in danger of defeat while their crisis or war is still going strong. It's easy to understand why Jimmy Carter was tossed out of office with U.S. hostages still in Iran: He was not only not an event-making president; by Election Day he had been widely written off as a passive victim of events. We can even understand why a war leader like Churchill, or a foreign-policy president like the first Bush, could be tossed out after their wars, hot or cold as the case may be, had definitively ended: They were no longer needed in their area of specialty.

But July 2004 finds the United States far from a postwar environment. Casualties continue in Iraq, Islamist terrorists destroyed a popular conservative government in Spain and cost Washington an important ally, the Saudi oil kingdom looks as unstable as it has ever looked, and everyone wonders if the United States can get through the November election without a major terrorist event at home. Yet by almost any measure, Bush has been a decisive, effective war president. If you doubt that, ask yourself why his Democratic opponent, so dripping with disdain for Bush's leadership, is unwilling to advocate a rollback of a single one of the administration's key war decisions.

Still, the president has job approval numbers that put him only a bit above the level of one-term presidents. And as in previous wartime elections, a strong economy is not helping him any more than it helped the Democrats in 1952 or 1968. Recent polls show Bush's rating on the economy not only not improving, but tracking close to his rating on his conduct of the war, which has never been lower.

As recently as December, the picture was very different. Saddam Hussein was captured on December 13, and despite the continuing Sunni insurgency and American casualties, Bush's approval rating on the war was in the 60s. The Democratic frontrunner, Howard Dean, embarrassed himself by commenting that Saddam's capture made us no safer, a revealing moment from which he never really recovered.