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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In the Democratic presidential caucus in dovish Iowa on January 19, candidates who had supported the congressional authorization for the president to invade Iraq received more than 80 percent of the votes. The conventional wisdom among many Democrats was that their best chance of beating Bush was for the war to fall out of the headlines, returning the debate to the domestic issues where Democrats were assumed to have their strongest arguments.

What happened to change that? Other things may later have added to Bush's problems, but the only set of events that coincides with the precipitous decline in Bush's job approval is the resignation of chief weapons inspector David Kay and his statement that, contrary to what he and virtually everyone else had thought, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S. invasion.

Kay's message was internalized by voters over several weeks. By the end of that period, Bush's approval rating for Iraq, and for his overall handling of the presidency, had sunk roughly to where it is today. Kerry clinched the nomination in early March and has been running roughly even with Bush ever since. Clearly, the Kay revelations caused something to snap.

But the Bush decline was far from uniform. The failure to find the WMD hurt him most among Democrats and independents. It hurt him least among Republicans and conservatives--his core vote.

Immediately after 9/11, Bush gained broad support for his handling of the war from voters of all descriptions. It didn't take long for things to get partisan again, yet the off-year elections of November 2002 saw small but unusual GOP gains at every level. In 2003, the year of Iraq, Bush's war rating varied considerably. The April capture of Baghdad and the December capture of Saddam gave him solid bumps, but his rating stayed comfortably high all year. The Kay resignation left Bush with essentially no greater support than in the 2000 election. Since then, but only since then, it has been hard to find Gore voters planning to vote to reelect Bush. Why?

It seems clear that Kerry, the Democrats, and their allies in elite opinion have pinned the WMD fiasco on Bush as a kind of character issue. This is the message of Al Gore, no less than of Michael Moore. On a rational level it makes no sense. If Bush knew Saddam's weapons were a fiction, he had to know he was buying himself enormous trouble, post-invasion. Bush of course believed the weapons were there, as did the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians--not to mention John Kerry, the leading beneficiary of Bush's loss of credibility.

Nor can it be argued that Bush could have limited the political damage with some shrewder handling of the revelations. The president went to Congress and to the United Nations and put great emphasis on the dangers of WMD in Saddam's hands, as he should have, given the available intelligence. The weapons have not been found. If there is some way to make voters feel better than they do about this, we have no idea what it is.

It is possible, of course, that things could go so well in Iraq that Bush could hang on to win reelection. There are two problems with this. The first is that the enemy in Iraq has no interest in making Bush look good. The second is that the nature of Bush's decline since the beginning of the year makes it hard to reverse among that slice of the electorate that turned against him.

That is because, much as the president and supporters of his foreign policy might wish otherwise, the country is deeply polarized in its partisan allegiance. Kerry's ability to move to the right on Iraq, with little or no damage to his candidacy in the Blue states, confirms that the split is not about the war, however defined. Five years ago at this time, Bill Clinton was a war leader in the former Yugoslavia, and many of his congressional opponents were Republicans. The split is still about our deepest values.

If it is about any one thing, it is about God. It is a truism that if you went to a religious service in the last week or so, you probably are voting for Bush-Cheney. If you didn't, you're probably voting for Kerry-Edwards.

The economic models assembled by such estimable professors as Ray Fair say Gore should have won handily in 2000. Bush and his team upset the calculations by running a character campaign against the Clinton administration. Gore was well aware of it, and wriggled mightily to get out from under the Clinton label.

Those same economic models predict a comfortable Bush victory today. Kerry and Edwards, with help from Michael Moore and (inadvertently) David Kay, plan to avoid any serious debate on the economy or the war and defeat Bush with a character campaign. They are on track to achieve this result.