The Magazine

Why He Drives Them Crazy

Being underestimated is George W. Bush's secret political weapon.

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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WHEN IT ALL boiled over that day in September--with a red-faced Tom Daschle denouncing the president from the Senate floor--George W. Bush had already given the Democrats two very bad years. Two years of predictions that never quite happened. Two years of gotchas that never came through. Two years of hopes dashed.

Two Septembers ago, let us remember, candidate Bush appeared dead in the water. He misspoke, went off message, blew his big lead. In the debates, surely, Al Gore would finish him. Not quite. Bush won the debates. Then Bush won Florida, and Democrats went into what became their default position: (a) Bush wasn't president; (b) Bush was dumb. As to (a), newspaper recounts, they kept telling themselves, would clearly show that Gore won Florida. As to (b), Bush would soon fall flat on his face. Didn't happen. They said Bush couldn't govern; Bush had a honeymoon. Then in late summer 2001, things settled down, and Bush stalled. Democrats could look forward to tormenting Bush for a year, before taking back Congress. Then came the attacks.

For a couple of days, the usual suspects tagged Bush as being both dim and a coward, flying around the country instead of back to Washington. But by the time most of these snipes had seen print, it was September 14, and Bush had been in the morning to the National Cathedral and in the afternoon to ground zero, where he was cheered as a heroic commander in chief in the heart of blue country, in a state he had lost by 28 points. His poll numbers soared. People said his numbers would drop, and so they did drop, all the way down to the 70s, after eight or nine months. Then came a few months of punishing headlines, and liberals brightened. Surely the Teflon would peel off of this poseur. People would see Bush the way that they saw him. People would see.

Or would they? Over and over, hopes budded, blossomed, and then fell away. In April, hopes were pinned on reports that the president "knew something" about the attacks before September 11 and had done nothing about them. What did the president know? Did he know that he knew it? Turns out the problems were in intelligence agencies, and were being corrected. "It seems clear the president has won this round," reported the New York Post's Deborah Orin, who quoted a pollster: "In the short term, it backfired--the Democrats probably helped boost Bush's numbers by pushing the agenda back to terrorism, which is his strength."

Then came a slew of problems that were not his long suit. Bush and Cheney's pals at Enron turned out to be presiding over a con game that tanked the company and wiped out the employees' pensions. The stock market tanked, partly because of the scandals. Happy days were here again, weren't they? Democrats did not yet have a candidate for the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but surely they had their dream opponent: George Herbert Hoover Bush. "In a few short weeks, America's political economy has been stunningly transformed," wrote Robert Kuttner in the American Prospect. "President Bush is suddenly in trouble. . . . The Bush administration, the Republican party, and three decades of conservative ideology are facing a potential rout." And properly so. "How utterly fitting. Bush's own financial biography, on a pettier scale, epitomizes the corruption that now threatens the whole system. . . . Bush irrevocably symbolizes the tawdriness of crony capitalism, right down to his insider self-enrichment based on the sale of the fraudulently inflated Harken stock." Michael Tomasky called the Harken charge the beginning of the end for the president, "the very point at which the spokes started coming off the wheels" for his highness. In the New Republic, Ryan Lizza wrote, "For over a week now, President Bush's dodgy stint at Harken Energy . . . has followed him around the country like a dark cloud. . . . the White House that dodged the Enron bullet might not be so lucky a second time. . . . Bush isn't only on the defensive on corporate fraud; corporate fraud is putting him on the defensive about almost everything else." Democratic leaders happily counted the possible gains in November, and gleefully tracked the slide in Bush's approval numbers, now falling at a rate of about 4 points a month. By Election Day, his numbers might be down in the 50s, and life would be back to normal. The Democrats' year of living defensively would be blessedly over. How could they miss?