GOING INTO THE FINAL DAY of the college football regular season, Oklahoma was undefeated and ranked Number 1. The Sooners had the best defense in the nation, had outscored their opponents by an average of 35 points and had a 9-game winning streak against ranked teams. "OU: Among best ever?" USA Today asked (rhetorically) on Friday. Kansas State, by contrast, had three losses, and had never won a Big 12 championship. Oklahoma was favored by two touchdowns. Kansas State, of course, won, 35-7.
For the next 11 months, Republicans, conservatives, and Bush campaign operatives should, on arising, immediately following their morning prayers, repeat that score aloud 10 times. Underdogs do sometimes win. Howard Dean could beat President Bush. Saying you're not overconfident (as the OU players repeatedly did) is no substitute for really not being overconfident. And if Bush loses next November, it's over. There's no BCS computer to give him another shot at the national championship in the Sugar Bowl.
Could Dean really win? Unfortunately, yes. The Democratic presidential candidate has, alas, won the popular presidential vote three times in a row--twice, admittedly, under the guidance of the skilled Bill Clinton, but most recently with the hapless Al Gore at the helm. And demographic trends (particularly the growth in Hispanic voters) tend to favor the Democrats going into 2004.
But surely the fact that Bush is now a proven president running for reelection changes everything? Sort of. Bush is also likely to be the first president since Herbert Hoover under whom there will have been no net job creation, and the first since Lyndon Johnson whose core justification for sending U.S. soldiers to war could be widely (if unfairly) judged to have been misleading.
And President Bush will be running for reelection after a two-year period in which his party has controlled both houses of Congress. The last two times the American people confronted a president and a Congress controlled by the same party were in 1980 and 1994. The voters decided in both cases to restore what they have consistently preferred for the last two generations: divided government. Since continued GOP control of at least the House of Representatives seems ensured, the easiest way for voters to re-divide government would be to replace President Bush in 2004. And with a plurality of voters believing the country is on the wrong track, why shouldn't they boot out the incumbent president?
But is Dean a credible alternative? Was Kansas State? Dean has run a terrific primary campaign, the most impressive since Carter in 1976. It's true that, unlike Carter (and Clinton), Dean is a Northeastern liberal. But he's no Dukakis. Does anyone expect Dean to be a patsy for a Bush assault, as the Massachusetts governor was?
And how liberal is Dean anyway? He governed as a centrist in Vermont, and will certainly pivot to the center the moment he has the nomination. And one underestimates, at this point when we are all caught up in the primary season, how much of an opportunity the party's nominee has to define or redefine himself once he gets the nomination.
Thus, on domestic policy, Dean will characterize Bush as the deficit-expanding, Social Security-threatening, Constitution-amending (on marriage) radical, while positioning himself as a hard-headed, budget-balancing, federalism-respecting compassionate moderate. And on foreign and defense policy, look for Dean to say that he was and remains anti-Iraq war (as, he will point out, were lots of traditional centrist foreign policy types). But Dean will emphasize that he has never ruled out the use of force (including unilaterally). Indeed, he will say, he believes in military strength so strongly that he thinks we should increase the size of the Army by a division or two. It's Bush, Dean will point out, who's trying to deal with the new, post-September 11 world with a pre-September 11 military.
But what about September 11? Surely Bush's response to the attacks, and his overall leadership in the war on terrorism, remain compelling reasons to keep him in office. They do for me. But while Bush is committed to victory in that war, his secretary of State seems committed to diplomatic compromise, and his secretary of Defense to an odd kind of muscle-flexing-disengagement. And when Bush's chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., said on Sunday with regard to Iraq, "We're going to get out of there as quickly as we can, but not before we finish the mission at hand," one wonders: Wouldn't Howard Dean agree with that formulation? Indeed, doesn't the first half of that sentence suggest that even the most senior of Bush's subordinates haven't really internalized the president's view of the fundamental character of this war? If they haven't, will the American people grasp the need for Bush's continued leadership on November 2? If not, prepare for President Dean.
William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.