Thursday, February 12, 2004

Bush’s Toughest Opponent

No matter who the Democrats choose as their candidate, the race for the presidency didn’t begin back in 2003 with Dr. Dean’s “sleepless summer” or at the Iowa caucuses. It began on January 21, 2001.

Second-term elections aren’t about the candidates running as equals. After all, the incumbent president has everything he needs – an entrenched staff and party apparantus, four years of fund raising, and the 82nd Airborne – to portray himself as the Leader of the Free World, which makes his opponent, regardless of background and energy, a bit-player in the pageant. What makes it a real contest is that the incumbent ends up running against the most formidable candidate out there: himself. And while few presidents running for re-election have lost, it isn’t a foregone conclusion; just ask Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. (Gerald Ford lost in 1976, but he was never elected in the first place.) Regardless of who Carter or Bush 1 ran against, the voters ended up evaluating the job the president had done in his first term and found him wanting. In both cases they turned to charismatic and relatively unknown men – Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton – who ran campaigns not on issues but on imagery: “A Shining City on a Hill” and “A Place Called Hope.” It’s tough for an incumbent to run against that. All he’s left with is “Stay the Course” or the more dangerous “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” (to which voters usually respond, “Right, and that’s why we’re voting you out.”)

Karl Rove knows this only too well, so he’s come up with “Strong Leadership in Times of Change” as the slogan for George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. (Thanks, Lambert, for the link.) It’s bland enough to cover the job description and using the adjective “strong” makes it butch enough to make up for having to dump the flight suit clips. Running on the Iraq war is already proving to be problematic, so that leaves 9/11. The problem with that is that most if not all of the “leadership” that Bush has demonstrated after that has been wasted in crass political usage and by pissing off any allies we might have won in the run-up to invading Iraq for no other reason than pique. It’s a slogan that says “he made the tough choices in times of peril,” leaving out the fact that those perilous times were of his own making and he usually came up with the wrong answer.

So it will be interesting to see how Bush runs against a man who has demonstrated a shallow grasp of global issues, a short-sighted view of economics, a basic lack of understanding of human suffering, and, to quote Jed Bartlet, “has raised disengagement to a Zen level.” All the Democrats need is to find their next Bill Clinton – or even Ronald Reagan – to turn this race into Bush vs. Bush.