Monday, December 15, 2003

Don’t Pop the Corks Just Yet, Karl

William Saletan, famous for predicting in September 2000 that George W. Bush was “toast,” looks at Howard Dean’s chances now that Saddam Hussein is in the joint.

Is Howard Dean toast?

That’s what pundits are suggesting, Republicans are hoping, and Democrats are fretting in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s capture. Dean surged to the front of the Democratic presidential pack by opposing the war in Iraq. As the postwar turned bloody, expensive, and stagnant, it looked like a brilliant bet. But this morning, reporters and analysts seem convinced that the latest card drawn from the deck leaves him with a losing hand.

I haven’t seen such certainty about an incumbent party keeping the White House since September 2000, when I called George W. Bush “toast.” I was overconfident then for the same reason others are overconfident now: We forget how quickly people forget. Problems, once solved, disappear. Voters take for granted what has been accomplished. Each success, initially framed by the president as an end in itself, is reframed by the challenger as a means to a further, unfulfilled end. Bush ought to know that this can be done to him in 2004. It’s what he did to Al Gore in 2000.


It’s clear from interviews Dean gave to reporters Saturday (written up in Sunday’s Washington Post and New York Times) that he’s repositioning himself as a more hawkish candidate in the general election. He was planning to claim that position tomorrow in a major foreign policy speech. Now he’ll have maximum attention as he does so. Bush’s aides would be unwise to assume that Dean can’t make their latest triumph vanish into history. They should know.

And remember, in 1991, George H.W. Bush polled at 91% after Gulf War I. One of the reasons Bill Clinton got the nomination was becuase a lot of the other Democratic candidates figured he would be a good sacrificial lamb and they could wait until the race would be open in 1996. Where are they now?