The Magazine

A Bush Rally

Can he close strong in 2008?

Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The Associated Press reported last week that a left-wing group, Americans United for Change, plans to spend $8.5 million to ensure that President Bush's public approval rating doesn't improve in his final year in office. The group points out that President Reagan recovered politically in 1988. "All of a sudden he became a rallying cry for conservatives and their ideology," Brad Woodhouse, the group's president, lamented. "Progressives are still living with that." Woodhouse added that another reason his group wants to insure against a Bush recovery is that it could help the GOP presidential nominee this year.

As Jules Crittenden commented on his excellent eponymous blog: "Apparently the Iraq war, Gitmo, trampling of constitutional rights, failure to catch bin Laden, bipartisanly despised immigration bill, Plamegate .  .  . heck, I can't remember all of it, but seven years of Bush bumbling and Bush lies and Bush looking like a chimp just didn't do it. .  .  . It's nice of them to worry that Bush will have a decent legacy. .  .  . Maybe they're afraid someone will notice we're winning in Iraq, America hasn't been attacked again, Katrina had more to do with inept Democratic leadership in Louisiana than it did with inept Republican leadership in Washington .  .  . we've had decent job growth and it isn't likely to be much of a recession. .  .  . I'm sure I missed a few, but it's been a long 7 years."

Crittenden's response was the right one: to mock the effort, and to adduce the easily adduce-able evidence that Bush has been a pretty decent president. Yet the Republican National Committee's reaction was different from Crittenden's. "Why would liberals want to spend good money re-fighting the battles they lost yesterday?" asked RNC spokesman Alex Conant. He continued, "The 2008 election will be about the future and which candidate is best able to lead during a time of war and economic challenge."

This is the conventional GOP response to concerns about Bush's low approval rating: 2008 won't be about Bush. He's not running for reelection. Nor is his vice president. And the leading GOP candidates have a very limited association with the Bush administration. What's more, 2006, an off-year election, was a retrospective verdict on Iraq and Katrina. This year's election will be forward-looking. Rahm Emanuel can repeat all he wants that "George Bush is on the ballot in 2008." But that's just Democratic spin.

That's what most Republicans are saying. But the truth is that Emanuel isn't all wrong: It is important to Republican prospects in 2008, and to conservative prospects beyond, how the Bush administration is judged. Continued progress in Iraq is paramount. That's all the more reason not to risk the progress produced by the surge by prematurely drawing down American troops. Stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan is a priority, too. On other fronts, the administration, unfortunately, seems determined to drift with respect to North Korea and Iran. Meanwhile it is engaged in wishful thinking with respect to Russia and the Palestinian question. Absent a crisis, it may be that all conservatives can do is mitigate the damage--and focus on making sure Iraq and Afghanistan are in reasonably good shape.

It is also a good idea to win a few big congressional fights--on eavesdropping on foreign communications, for example. And it was sensible to take some issues off the table--cutting a quick and pretty harmless bipartisan agreement on a stimulus package, for example. It would also be smart to deploy some of the not-too-partisan and not-too-tainted (whether the tainting was fair or unfair) faces in the administration to defend its policies and explain its successes. It would be smart for Americans to see more of Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, CIA director Michael Hayden, and Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno over the next year.

It would also be useful if Americans learned that under the direction of drug czar John Walters teen drug use is down 25 percent over the past six years; there are 860,000 fewer teens using illegal drugs than in 2001. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt should be on television explaining that the Medicare prescription drug benefit has been a success. It has enrolled 24 million seniors and premiums for the basic drug benefit are running about 40 percent below the projected cost. And perhaps the president himself should take some time to explain that his politically courageous August 2001 decision on stem cells, balancing scientific progress and moral concerns, has been utterly vindicated.