CAN PRESIDENT BUSH RECOVER? It matters enormously in the 2008 election--particularly in the presidential race--whether he does or not. Either way, recovery or no recovery, the president will have a powerful impact on the outcome. If he fails to lift himself out of the political doldrums, his successor in the White House is likely to be a Democrat. But should he pull off a strong finishing kick, as President Reagan did in 1988, the prospects of another Republican president will improve significantly.
President Bush of course won't be on the ballot. But the status of his presidency--whether he's seen as successful or not--will frame the election year debate, just as it did when Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan left office after two presidential terms.
Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1968 were seen as failures: Truman because of the stalemated Korean conflict; Johnson as a result of the unpopular Vietnam War. Both were Democrats. Both were succeeded by Republicans. Eisenhower in 1960, despite a deep recession in 1958 and 1959, remained personally popular, but his Republican administration was exhausted and uninspiring. Democrat John F. Kennedy won the 1960 presidential race.
Reagan, in contrast, demonstrated how a president's revival in his last year of office can save his party. A Republican, he was beset in 1987 by the Iran-contra scandal and cancer. But he recovered late in 1987 and 1988 with a string of successes on the overarching issue, the Cold War. The Soviets agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan and sign a treaty proposed by Reagan to ban intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe. And Reagan's trip to Moscow was a dazzling triumph. The result: Republican George H.W. Bush won the 1988 election.
What's clear in these elections is that the candidate of the outgoing president's party is inextricably tied to that president. It's a political connection that can't be broken. The candidate can criticize the president, try to distance himself, and snarl like the president's worst enemy. But that not only won't work, it's likely to be counterproductive. After House Republican moderates met Tuesday with Bush, they leaked to the press that they'd informed him he's damaging the party by persisting with the war in Iraq. That won't help their re-election; they're tied to the president, too. The best tactic is to build up the president, not tear him down.
Of the Republican presidential candidates, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani appears to be the only one who understands this. At their first debate last week, the 10 Republicans were asked what they'd do differently from Bush. All but Giuliani jumped at the chance to draw distinctions. Sen. John McCain was the most critical, faulting the president for mismanaging the war in Iraq.
Giuliani, however, noted that after 9/11, terrorists were expected to attack again. "We haven't been," he said. "I believe we have a president who made the right decision at the right time . . . to put us on offense against terrorists. I think history will remember him for that. And I think as Republicans we should remind people of that."
A turnaround in Iraq would give Bush the biggest boost. Short of that, some tangible progress in Iraq would help. The president has adopted a new strategy, the "surge," to curb the violence, impede the insurgency, and secure Baghdad. But even the best case scenario for Iraq doesn't foresee indisputable evidence the surge is working until this fall.
For the president to recover, more than signs of success in Iraq are required. He must counter the conventional wisdom that America is failing in the Middle East and losing influence elsewhere. This may necessitate a tough, new direction in his foreign and national security policy, which now looks weak.
The image of weakness was reinforced last week at a conference in Egypt of Iraq and its neighbors. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to confer with Iran's foreign minister and was snubbed twice. She did meet with the foreign minister of Syria, but that came a few days after the new American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, had said terrorists fly into Damascus, the Syrian capital, on their way to Iraq.
You might think the economy, robust as it is, would give Bush a boost. But it provides no help. As a political matter, wars overshadow the state of the economy. Truman discovered this in 1952, when the economy was strong but his political standing was so low he was forced to give up plans for re-election.
There is one thing that Bush and his Republican allies in Congress have done spectacularly well since their election defeat last fall: play defense. Democrats rushed six bills through the House in January. Republicans have managed to sidetrack them in the Senate by filibuster or veto. Democrats have yet to enact a single piece of serious legislation.
Blocking liberal bills produces a kind of negative success. It hasn't, and won't, trigger a Bush resurgence. Democrats, after all, are more popular than Republicans at the moment and several of their initiatives--increased funding for embryonic stem-cell research, to cite one--have considerable public support. Democratic presidential candidates, by the way, drew a bigger TV audience for their debate last month than Republicans did for theirs.
In a speech in Punta Gorda, Fla., last weekend, Bush aide Karl Rove had good advice for Republicans. "Now is the time to be bold," he said. "It's easy when the wind's at your back. But the real test is now when the wind's in our face. That's when we find out if we're tough enough, inspired enough, committed enough to do our duty."
Bush should take that advice, too. He needs to make sure congressional Republicans reach a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform this year. Because he's championed the issue for years, Bush would get a large share of the credit. Just as important, it would take the issue that most divides his party off the table and give Republicans a shot at restoring their credibility with Hispanic voters.
Democrats can get by without any fresh ideas or legislative achievements. They took over Congress without offering any. For Bush, a new idea or two would provide a nice contrast with Democrats. He never fleshed out his concept of an Ownership Society that would give individuals more control over their retirement, health care and education funds. Now would be a good time to do that.
President Bush's standing won't be the only factor that decides the 2008 election. But it will be the most important one. If he doesn't recover politically, with progress in Iraq spurring him on, it's hard to see a Republican candidate winning the White House. And the likelihood of a President Hillary Clinton or a President Barack Obama will grow.
Fred Barnes is the executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. This essay originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.