The stars consist of six factors, all of which appear favorable to Bush at the moment. They are: an improving economy, a successful war, a big domestic triumph, a boatload of campaign money, an opposition party in disarray, an a discredited big media. Let's look at each one.
The Improving Economy. The index of leading indicators is positive. The best indicator, the stock market, has soared 20 percent since March. There is anecdotal evidence of an uptick in IPOs and mergers and acquisitions. And the economic fundamentals are sound, particularly low interest rates and inflation. Plus Bush's tax cuts go into effect July 1, which means there's plenty of economic stimulus. The only question mark--a big one--is capital investment. For sustained growth and a decrease in unemployment, it must come strongly into play. The expectation is it will, but that's only an expectation, not a sure thing.
A Successful War. Two, to be exact, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. On top of that, there's the war on terrorism, which has gone reasonably well, as evidenced by the absence of a major terrorist attack in the United States since the assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The postwar occupation of Iraq has been rocky, but things are improving. "The postwar will determine the judgment on the war," says Democratic consultant Robert Shrum. He may be right, and that should make the Bush forces nervous. Still, the overriding issue in 2004, national security, is owned by Bush.
Big Domestic Issue. Tax cuts are not enough for a Republican president to run on, though they are politically helpful. A breakthrough in domestic policy is necessary. Bush will achieve that when a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens is enacted, probably this summer. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle could have passed one and gotten credit for Democrats. Now Bush will get the credit.
A Ton of Money. Democrats insist the drug benefit will be trumped by the larger issue of health care itself. Not a chance. Bush intends to raise $200 million, giving him funds galore for TV ads touting the long-sought Medicare benefit as a glorious Bush accomplishment. Clinton used his re-election money for television spots in 1995 that set him up for easy re-election the next year. Bush is in a position to do the same. His Democratic foe won't come to close to matching his money.
Democrats in Disarray. One of the reasons Republican consultant Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies throws around the L-word ("Landslide") is the sad state of the Democratic party. "Never before have we witnessed what's happened since the [September 11] attack: a sustained, almost two-year period where Americans have rated the Republican party higher on a thermometer than the Democratic party," he said. Republican leaders are considerably more popular than Democrats. Democrats are weak among independent and swing voters. Only 18 percent of voters in a Public Opinion Strategies survey are convinced any of the Democratic presidential candidates "can handle terrorism." And Democrats are conflicted on issue after issue--war in Iraq, Medicare, taxes, guns.
Discredited Media. Rarely have the major media outlets--TV network news, big newspapers, newsmagazines--been as embarrassingly wrong as they were in covering the war in Iraq. They were defeatist, exaggerating minor battlefield glitches as the American forces raced to victory. Dick Morris, once a political adviser to Clinton, argues in his new book "Off With Their Heads" that the era of media dominance in politics is over. Big media is no longer trusted, he writes. To the extent this is true, it helps Bush, since the national press is not his friend.
Again, the caveats. Nothing is assured. One can imagine a Democratic ticket--Lieberman-Graham perhaps--that would be competitive. Political scientist Larry Sabato calculates the 2004 contest now with 278 electoral votes probable or leaning for Bush and 260 for the Democratic challenger. That's a Bush lead, but not a landslide. And, of course, it's only a projection. But you have to like Bush's chances a lot better than any Democrat's at the moment.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.