Sabato's Crystal Ball

George W. Bush as Harry S. Truman

He'd better be Truman if he wants to win...

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics May 20th, 2004

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The gloom among Republicans is deepening as President Bush falls behind Democratic nominee John F. Kerry by a small, but clearly perceptible, margin in many national and swing-state polls. This is, by our count, the fourth time the lead has changed hands since January. (Bush was up as the new year dawned, Kerry took command after Iowa, Bush resurged in April, and now the Kerry lead in ARG, CNN, Gallup, Newsweek and Pew surveys.) Yet somehow, Bush’s problems appear more damaging and perhaps more enduring with a mere 166 days remaining before the November election. (166 days can be the blink of an eye, or an eternity. In this extraordinary election year that resembles in some ways the cataclysmic twins of 1968 and 1980, it may be both.)

There are two fundamental reasons for Bush’s sharp decline in job approval and the dramatic increase in people saying the nation is on the “wrong track.” First, Bush’s presidency is – by his own admission – inextricably bound to Iraq, and things are going very badly there. Second, he is receiving no credit at all for the substantial, very positive rebound in the economy. Let’s briefly look at each factor, one where Bush is rightly being horsewhipped and the other where Bush is suffering from a media double standard:

Iraq

Whether you think the press has overblown the prison abuse scandal or not, it is impossible to argue now that the American people are not seeing Iraq as Vietnam without the jungle. The president has been badly served by his closest advisers on Iraq: from Dick Cheney to Donald Rumsfeld to Paul Wolfowitz. They have been consistently wrong on Iraq. There were no large caches of weapons of mass destruction; the toppling of Saddam Hussein was the easy part and just the beginning – not the end – of the war; preparations for the long twilight battle America faced in Iraq were shockingly inadequate; and we turn out to need more allies desperately – they were not dispensable, as the administration gambled. The Bush crowd has a good excuse only for the WMD, since everyone was fooled, including President Clinton and other senior Democrats as well as virtually every other nation with a good intelligence service. The other difficulties, however, were widely predicted in advance, and blithely ignored by Bush. And now the president, and through him America, is stuck.

A wise man, former Republican U.S. Sen. George Aiken of Vermont, warned Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon about the quagmire of Vietnam. His famous advice was, “Declare victory and get out.” If only it were that easy in Iraq. Even if Kerry is elected, the United States will be forced to continue the commitment to Iraq for years to come at tremendous cost in blood and treasure. Should Kerry win, the irony is historic. This time, a Republican president will pass on to a Democratic successor an unwinnable guerilla war, the opposite of LBJ’s 1969 hand-off of Vietnam to Nixon. And Kerry will have to fight this war, perhaps with a new policy of “Iraq-ization” instead of Vietnam-ization (as Nixon called his initiative to turn over the fighting gradually to a trained South Vietnamese army). The Who sang it best: “Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss.” Time for a new release of that golden oldie?

The Economy

Here’s where President Bush and his campaign have a legitimate beef. The economy has clearly started to roar. New jobs are being created by the hundreds of thousands each month, almost every economic statistic is improving beautifully, and interest rates remain at historically low levels. Yet a large majority of the American public thinks the economy ranges from bad to terrible – far worse than they saw it a couple months ago. Some might say that this is just a reflection of the electorate’s bad mood, induced by the prisoner abuse scandal. That may be part of it, but the national news media – especially the major TV networks – bear great responsibility. Since the economy started its sharp climb upward, the only economic stories consistently covered have been the price increases in gasoline and milk. Doesn’t President Bush deserve some credit for economic success, having passed his central economic package/tax cut in 2001? Wouldn’t he be taking it on the chin if the story were the reverse? It was, and he did, for three years of his term. Ah, but the media say, “bad news is news; good news isn’t news,” to explain away the lack of positive coverage. Go back to 1996, as the Crystal Ball did prior to writing this e-mail, when another president facing a shaky reelection got a lift from the economy just in time. You’ll find that Bill Clinton secured Big Media’s praise in story after story, talk show after talk show, for his “courageous” 1993 economic package/tax increase – which was frequently and directly tied by reporters to the economic upturn of ’96. Can the media understand why so many conservatives see an anti-Republican double standard at work, especially on the network TV evening news programs? (The Crystal Ball fully acknowledges that neither the Clinton package of ’93 nor the Bush package of ’01 may have had anything to do with economic recovery in ’96 and ’04. But viewers and readers have a right to expect consistency and fairness, regardless of the media’s partisan and ideological leanings.)

Battling History

So where does this brief review of the two macro-issues of 2004 leave us? Just as the Crystal Ball has stressed for years, this election is a referendum on the incumbent president. Right now, the judgment is thumbs-down on George W. Bush, and he is very lucky the election is more than five months away, because he would almost surely lose today. The Bush campaign points to polls showing that John Kerry is not well liked either, and it insists that Kerry must pass a threshold of presidential credibility that he does not now possess. All true. But Kerry has two significant advantages. First, he is not Bush, and the American people have nowhere to go but Kerry if they wish to replace Bush. (We’ve already made our bet on Nader: He’ll do worse than in 2000, and he won’t make the difference this year.) Second, Kerry will have multiple opportunities to pass the critical threshold of credibility both at the Democratic National Convention (guaranteed to be a lovefest, with the love oddly fed by passionate hatred for Bush, which has amazingly become the equal of the Democrats’ decades-long enmity for Nixon) and the three fall presidential debates. Kerry isn’t at all likable, and he’s too serious, cold, liberal, and dull. Still, he has an excellent chance to be positioned to inherit almost all the anti-Bush vote. The way Bush is going, that could be a solid plurality of the country.

Can Bush reverse these trends? Of course, he might be able to, but he’ll need a lot of the luck that has deserted him, and good news on both fronts discussed above. The easier task is to insist on fair media treatment on the economy. The Republican faithful understandably relish media-bashing anyway, and some legitimate complaining on the Bush campaign’s part might actually reduce the destructive whining about immigration reform and a few other Bush “apostasies” from the perpetually dissatisfied and hopelessly rigid GOP far-right.

On Iraq, Bush is said to believe that God has chosen him to lead at this moment to confront the evils of terrorism. It’s possible that God believes in a one-term limit, but Bush had best hope for divine intervention so that, miraculously, the prisoner abuse scandal dies down, the June 30 handover of authority in Iraq goes far better than expected, and the United Nations and our European sometimes-allies join in the fight.

Overall, George W. Bush is battling history. First, the Adamses, the only other father-son pair to hold the presidency, were each defeated for reelection; the Bushes are already halfway there. Second, all three previous presidents who lost the popular vote (John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888) served a single term in the White House. And, every president since 1932 has either been well ahead in the polls by May and won reelection handily – or been defeated in November. Oh wait, there’s one exception: Harry Truman. The patron saint of underdogs, Truman was so far behind throughout almost all of 1948 that the key pollsters of the day stopped surveying in early autumn, so certain was the victory of Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Yet a late surge by a determined “Give ‘Em Hell” Harry produced one of the most eye-popping surprises of presidential campaign history. Truman beat Dewey 49.6 percent to 45.1 percent, with 2.4 percent each for Henry Wallace of the Progressives and Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrats. (The electoral vote was 303 Truman, 189 Dewey, 39 Thurmond, and 0 Wallace.)

How did Truman do it? Partly, the FDR Democratic coalition was still strong and dominant – with no parallel on either side in 2004. But there was another, perhaps more critical, factor. Truman took to the campaign trail with an intensity and heartfelt belief in his record that overwhelmed the opposition and won him grudging respect from voters who had earlier concluded that, in the phrase of the day, “To err is Truman.” Like Bush, Truman was controversial and considered not up to the job of president. Like John Kerry, Thomas Dewey projected a bloodless chill and aristocratic bearing.

Most presidential candidates who invoke Truman are already toast, but no incumbent president is ever Melba toast (i.e. toast in advance). Just as Truman proved, any president has many opportunities to fight back right until the end. Interestingly, another Republican president who was well behind turned to Truman for inspiration: Gerald R. Ford in 1976. Ford had served in the House under Truman, supported the Democrat’s internationalist policies, and kept a bust of Truman in the Oval Office during his brief presidency. The odds against Ford were far greater than those now facing Bush, yet Ford closed a 30-plus point August gap with Democrat Jimmy Carter to a mere 2 1/2 point difference on election day.

Think Truman, Mr. Bush, and you may just confound the pollsters and the pundits like Harry did 56 years ago. At the same time, it is a measure of Bush’s current electoral troubles that the Truman example is even invoked.

Bush as Truman? Stranger things have happened in this exceptionally tumultuous era.

9/11 Commission Update

The Crystal Ball sends its congratulations to Mayor Rudy Giuliani for his pointed upbraiding of the preening 9/11 Commission. Giuliani shocked some Commission members by reminding them that the blame for 9/11 rests squarely with the sick terrorists who perpetrated the evil acts of September 2001. Meanwhile, as usual, the Commission’s hearing degenerated into a sad circus, with Commission members playing to the audience – whose lusty boos, cheers, and interruptions were as irritating as they were unenlightening. The Crystal Ball recognizes the right to protest as an integral part of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and we sympathize with the strong emotions of the families of 9/11 victims. It is the Commission that made the regrettable mistake of holding open hearings. Television cameras can sufficiently cover the proceedings in a private room, with protesters freely assembled outside.

Finally, we wish Mayor Giuliani had broadened his criticism of the Commission to include the unseemly TV appearances being made by some Commission members. Is Comedy Central, for example, an appropriate place for them to discuss the horrors of 9/11? There was nothing funny about 9/11 or its aftermath, and while there are more than a few jokers connected to this Commission, a pseudo-news comedy show should be the last place a distinguished member of this panel should appear. The Beltway mavens were once agog over this “sterling” Commission. If it were ever silver, the Commission is now badly tarnished. The Commission’s comeuppance was overdue but welcome.