The Self Made Pundit
Friday, February 28, 2003
A BUSH LIKE HIS FATHER: While I think ABC's The Note is often excellent, it's political analysis tends to ricochet wildy from astute to a simplistic reworking of conventional wisdom. Look for some trenchant analysis on Monday, because its discussion today on why Bush II is in better shape for reelection now than Bush I was in February 1991 is laughably bad.
The Note engages in this exercise in response to the growing awareness that Bush the Younger’s presidency almost seems destined to track the trajectory of Bush the Elder’s presidency as a weak economy pulls stratospheric polls numbers down to earth. If this Bush get his way, he will also have a short and glorious war with Iraq, just as his father did. Some commentators (such as this one) have even speculated that this Bush could relive its his father’s unhappy discovery of how important the economy is to voters. The Note attacks such speculation with points that are as specious as they are ahistorical.
The Note’s very first point is the nonsensical assertion that for the current occupant of the White House, “There's more time for the economy to get better soon enough for voters to feel it.” While I realize the media have been bending over backwards for this Bush, I don't think they are going to be able to get the calendar to move any slower for Bush the Younger. What the Note really means to say is that there is plenty of time for the economy to get better – ignoring that there is also plenty of time for the economy to get worse. I see no reason to favor a rosy economic outlook given Bush the Younger's bone-headed economic program of throwing money not at problems, but at the rich.
The Note also says – without explanation – that “The war against terrorism has the potential to re-create the Cold War's electoral college lock.” This statement is fatuous on so many levels, it’s difficult to know where to start. The Republican’s so-called electoral lock of the 1980's was little more than a catchphrase devoid of any particular insight. The reason the Republicans received more electoral college votes than the Democrats in the three presidential elections of the 1980s is that they received more popular votes. Once the Democrats nominated a savvy enough politician (namely Clinton) to attract more popular votes, the Democrats won presidential elections by electoral landslides. Even Gore’s modest national popular vote margin in 2000 would have produced an electoral college majority if Florida’s electoral machinery had not broken down. (No intellectually honest observer can dispute that the plurality of Floridians tried voting for Gore on election day in 2000, but thanks to the infamous Palm Beach butterfly ballot and other snafus, the Florida election was close enough for the U.S. Supreme Court to hand the presidency to Bush.)
Moreover, since the Republicans’ supposed electoral college lock did not even materialize until the 1980 election, it makes no sense to attribute it to the Cold War, which was by then more than three decades old. To the extent that the Republican’s Cold War positions did help them attract some votes in the 1980s, however, it is not at all clear that the war on terrorism will be just as advantageous to Bush in 2004. The very fact that Bush is now trying to shift the blame for failing to allocate sufficient funds for anti-terrorism programs to his fellow Republicans in Congress (see “MAN BITES DOG; BUSH LIES” post below) indicates that Bush recognizes he could become vulnerable on this issue.
Proving that hindsight is indeed 20-20, the Note also posits that “At this writing, the Democratic field does not appear to have the kind of once-in-a-lifetime political heavyweight that was Bill Clinton.” Needless to say, as of February 1991, the Democratic field also did not appear to have the kind of once-in-a-lifetime political heavyweight that Bill Clinton proved to be. For those with short political memories, 12 years ago Bill Clinton was probably best known for giving a boring and overly-long nominating speech for Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention. The delegates actually cheered when Clinton reached the words “in conclusion.” Even after sewing up the 1992 Democratic nomination, Clinton arguably appeared to be a political lightweight, coming in third, behind Bush and Perot, in some polls. Obviously, Clinton eventually turned his campaign around and trounced Bush. However, a year and a half before the election it was by no means obvious that Clinton would prove to be a political heavyweight. I think Kerry, Dean and Edwards all have the potential to be political heavyweights. Let’s see what actually happens in the campaign.
The Note again fails to remember the reality of the 1992 campaign with its statement that “There is currently no Ross Perot-like figure that will drain right-leaning votes away from him in the general.” When an incumbent is running for reelection, strong third-party candidates generally hurt the major party challenger who has to compete for voters dissatisfied with the status quo. It is overly simplistic to label Perot’s supporters as right-leaning voters. Clinton and Perot were both competing for voters who thought Bush’s economic policies had been disastrous. After the 1992 political conventions, Clinton was leading Bush in the polls by more than 20 percent. When Perot (who had pulled out of the race for several months) jumped back into the race, Clinton’s margin over Bush shrunk. Contrary to the Note’s view, there is at least a fair chance that Clinton would have beaten Bush by an even greater margin if Perot had not run. If, as appears likely, there is no strong third-party candidate in 2004, voters dissatisfied with this Bush will have only one serious contender for whom to vote – the Democrat.
The Note also buys into Bush’s apparent belief that the appearance of a domestic agenda is more important than substance with its comment that “He will continue to push a domestic agenda, even during war (reports today peg his Medicare unveiling to the period in which the CW has it that the attack on Iraq will begin).” As I have discussed in my previous posts this week, Bush’s domestic agenda is largely one of tax cuts for the rich and weakening Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Polls showing that more Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of the economy than approve indicate that Bush’s pushing his domestic agenda is not necessarily going to stop the slide in his reelection numbers.
Contrary to the Note’s glib analysis, there are strong indications that next year Bush could be just as vulnerable as his father was in 1992. Let’s wait and see what happens with Iraq and the economy in the coming months before coronating the man who was rejected by the majority of voters in 2000.