By Richard S. Dunham
So much for the conventional wisdom. What was supposed to be a slam-dunk 2004 reelection victory for President Bush has now turned into a genuine muddle. The economy has many voters and companies nervous, record federal deficits have fiscal mavens and Wall Street nervous, a bloody guerilla war in Iraq has everybody nervous -- and the new-found hero of the Left, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, is enjoying a late-summer surge.
A recent Zogby International Poll found that 45% of Americans want to reelect the President, while 48% say it's time for somebody else. On Sept. 2, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry became the lastest Democrat to throw his hat in the ring. Some Democratic dreamers are even spreading rumors that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is preparing to evict the Bushes from the White House for the second time in 12 years.
As usual, things aren't what the conventional wisdom would have you believe. What's clear is this: Just one year before the sprint to the finish line in the 2004 Presidential election, it's a wide-open race. "Bush looks vulnerable to me," says Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University at Fullerton. "I would never bet against an incumbent President with strong organization and unlimited money. But if you get a strong Democratic candidate who can speak clearly [on issues], it's a close race. The Democrats, at least, are in the ballpark now."
THE CLINTON PRECEDENT.
The range of credible scenarios for 2004 runs the gamut from a big Bush win to a Democratic wave that takes back both the White House and Congress. In one plausible scenario, a tough, triumphant George W. Bush wins a 49-state landslide against an out-of-the-mainstream New England liberal amid an economic revival and foreign-policy victories. In another scenario, a prevaricating Republican incumbent is booted from office after leaving the country deeply in debt while enriching his corporate cronies and placing U.S. troops in harm's way, with no clear mission or goal. Or we could see a virtual replay of 2000, with a photo finish in the popular vote and the election decided by the same swing states as last time: Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Best three of five wins it all.
A year truly is a lifetime in politics. Most of us forget, but in 1995, Bill Clinton was trailing several possible GOP challengers in poll matchups. Four years earlier, George Bush Sr. was the strong favorite against a field of Demo-munchkins and the Hamlet of the Hudson, Mario Cuomo. In 1983, Ronald Reagan was running behind former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale as a sour economy continued to sap his popularity.
As risky as it is to predict election outcomes a year in advance, though, here are four key factors to consider as Labor Day 2003 fades from memory:
The President remains popular. Yes, Bush has had his ups and downs. But most polls have his job-approval rating in the high 50s. That's where Reagan was when he thrashed Mondale in '84. And while many Democrats despise the President, most of them still expect him to win another term, according to Zogby.
The Democratic field is shrinking. After eight months of campaigning, only two Democratic candidates have gathered any steam. Dean, the dynamo of the Left, has put together the best organization of any Democrat since George McGovern in 1972, and could well threaten the money-raising records of Bill Clinton. Recent Zogby and American Research Group polls show him rocketing to the top in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. The other Democratic heavyweight is Kerry, who has the best organization money can buy, has raised enough money to mount a strong campaign, and has found support among both liberal activists and establishment moderates.
Kerry and Dean seem to have tickets to the "Final Four" for '04, along with Bush. Only one of the other Dems is likely to make the cut. It's too early to tell whether Survivor, Iowa Caucuses edition will be Missouri Representative Richard A. Gephardt, Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, or North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
Gephardt has been endorsed by more than a dozen unions, but he is sagging in late-summer polls, as Dean has lured some of his labor/liberal supporters. Lieberman, who has attacked Dean as an unelectable liberal, has attracted scant support in the early showdown states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And Edwards, despite spending a substantial amount of money on advertising and buscapades to small towns, is still in single digits. One of them might catch on. Then again, they might all fade away.
Already faded: Florida Senator Bob Graham, former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, and New York activist Al Sharpton. Their mouths may roar, but their support is negligible.
If Democrats continue to feel that Bush is vulnerable, the pressure on Hillary Clinton to run could grow. Party moderates may encourage her to enter the race to head off Dean. But it's unlikely that Clinton will want to play Bob Kennedy to Dean's Gene McCarthy -- the internecine battle of antiwar heroes that ended in tragedy in 1968.
The economy will be pivotal. For the first time since President Bush took office, economic signs are looking up, and the White House is boasting about the latest revised GDP figures (3.1% growth). Yet unemployment remains at a nine-year high, and the federal deficit is the biggest in history. GDP aside, voters remain downbeat and give Bush low marks for his economic stewardship. An Aug. 25-26 Gallup Poll found that 45% of voters approved of Bush's performance on the economy, while 52% gave thumbs down.
What will the economy look like next September, when the 2004 general election campaign kicks off? "Things seem to be picking up, but you never can tell what the economy will be like a year from now," says John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "We're dealing with what [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld calls 'the unknown unknowns.'"
For Bush to win the economic debate, two things must happen: Not only must the economy produce better statistics, the majority of Americans must think that the economy is getting better. Politics is a game of perception. In 1992, the leading indicators were positive, but voters were convinced that the economy was not improving. Another Bush got the boot.
The imponderables could prove decisive. The war on terrorism casts a long shadow over '04. Republicans hold a huge edge over Democrats as the party best able to prosecute the war against al Qaeda. How would the American people react if there is another terrorist attack? Would they rally behind the President or hold Bush responsible for failing to protect the homeland? Will the President be punished if Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein continue to evade the long arm of American military might? Will he be rewarded if they are killed?
And what will be the situation on the ground in Iraq in a year: Continuing casualties, chaos, or substantial progress? A strong majority of Americans -- but not Democrats -- today believes the preemptive war was worth it. Will that sentiment hold up for 14 more months?
With Bush's huge cash advantage and double-digit leads over every Democrat in head-to-head match-ups, the President enters the campaign season as the favorite. "He's in a relatively strong position," says Pitney, "but hardly impregnable." Team Bush may yet rue the day it unfurled the banner declaring "Mission Accomplished" on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln after Baghdad fell. For Democrats, despite the springtime wails of the pundits, the '04 campaign is not yet Mission Impossible.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online