The Magazine

Against Giddiness

From the November 24, 2003 issue: The president still has work to do to assure reelection

Nov 24, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 11 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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REPUBLICANS ARE GIDDY. The economy is on the verge of a sustained boom. After nearly two years of a "jobless recovery," new jobs are being created in large numbers. Iraq is a problem--a big problem--but a midcourse correction in postwar policy may curb terrorist attacks and hasten a democratic government. And Democrats are about to nominate a presidential candidate with George McGovern's foreign policy and Walter Mondale's tax increases, a double whammy leading to unelectability. By all odds, President Bush should sail to reelection.

Sorry, but it's not that easy. For one thing, Democrats may not nominate Howard Dean, the antiwar, tax-raising liberal. He's the frontrunner and leads in the first primary state, New Hampshire. But New Hampshire voters take a perverse pleasure in knocking off frontrunners. Besides, even if Dean is the nominee, he's likely to make an ideological beeline to the center and confront Bush as an antiwar fiscal conservative with liberal social leanings who wants to stabilize Iraq, not bug out. Having locked up the left, he can concentrate on wooing the center by limiting his tax hike to the so-called wealthy and emphasizing health care, an issue that reliably favors Democrats. And the press would probably treat him not as an egregious flip-flopper, but as a wily pragmatist looking to outsmart Bush.

So the president still has work to do to assure reelection. The economy, spurred by Bush's tax cuts, can be left to its own devices. Iraq cannot. The most significant problem in Iraq is not the lack of power granted the Iraqi Governing Council. It's the security situation. The terrorist attacks and Baathist guerrilla operations must not be allowed to linger deep into 2004 or Bush could pay a big political price. It may not make sense for voters to conclude an antiwar Democrat would handle Iraq better, but stranger things have happened. Pro-war Democrats voted for antiwar Eugene McCarthy in 1968 because they feared the war in Vietnam wasn't being won. Giving more authority to Iraqis won't solve the security threat. Only by eliminating the security threat will Iraq have a chance to emerge as a durable democracy.

Normally, a liberal Democrat who claims to be a fiscal conservative would pose no danger to a conservative Republican. But Bush's spending record is so awful (non-military expenditures up 8.7 percent in 2003) that Dean, for one, might make headway on the issue. After all, his fiscal record as Vermont governor wasn't all that bad. At the least, he could use the spending issue to take the edge off his liberalism and embarrass Bush. And no doubt former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, his new book in hand, will travel the country, arguing that deficit reduction spawned the late 1990s boom. What can Bush do? Plenty. He can resist the temptation to settle for a Medicare bill that creates a prescription drug benefit but includes no cost-saving reforms. For now, a simple (and less costly) discount card for seniors would be more than adequate. He should also be ready to use his veto pen--for the first time--when appropriation bills with excessive spending reach his desk. Bush has wisely decided to campaign in 2004 for Social Security reform, which would help stave off insolvency.

Finally, there are social and religious conservatives to pay attention to. Bush adviser Karl Rove has worried aloud about 4million religious conservatives who failed to vote in 2000. Next year, Bush shouldn't expect his evangelical Christian faith, now well known, to lure them to the polls. He'll need to address their concerns--abortion, gay marriage, pornography, anti-Christian bias. Harping on these isn't necessary, but making his positions clear and unequivocal is. Bush made a gratuitous mistake at his last press conference by saying the country isn't ready to ban abortion. That may be true, but he'd have been smarter to focus on the next item on the pro-life agenda, making violence against unborn children a federal crime. Social conservatives need to be encouraged. They will be--if they're certain the president is on their side.