Sitting in a bar on Milk Street in Boston one day, a legendary Democratic operative named Paul Tully told me this: “There is no such thing as a straight-line extrapolation in politics. You can’t connect dots and know where the line will go. It’ll curve unexpectedly. This is an interactive universe.” That said, President Bush is in a strong position as the campaign begins — and not just because we captured Saddam Hussein.
I’ve been at this for a while now, and I have never seen a president more popular with his own party base. Even Ronald Reagan had to deal, from time to time, with the remnants of older iterations of the Republican Party. Bush doesn’t have to bother. They’re gone, and he’s united the new GOP. That means he won’t face an intra-party primary in ’04. Presidents who have to deal with one — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush come to mind — lose re-election bids.
Howard Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, drew laughs at Bush-Cheney headquarters the other month when he suggested that the switch of a single state from the 2000 contest — he mentioned New Hampshire — would give the White House to a Democrat in 2004. He was wrong. Because of population and geographical changes, Bush picks up a net seven Electoral College votes in a re-run of 2000. He can afford to lose, say, West Virginia (which he alienated by dropping steel tariffs the other week). In a close Red-Blue race, the tiny margin matters.
Yes Howard Dean is a Net-based money machine, but he’s still a mom-and-pop operation compared with Bush-Cheney ’04, which has raised $110 million since June, and has no primary opponent. Dean has some 550,000 names on its email list. “BC04” has 10 million.
The dollar is down, way down, against the euro. The federal budget deficit is growing nightmarishly. The world seems to be shouting “No!” to the U.S. economy. The unemployment rolls remains high, and there has been a net loss of more than 2 million manufacturing jobs. But the direction of things matters, and public confidence matters. The president (and Karl Rove’s) biggest fear is that the recovery will stall, or falter, this spring. If it doesn’t — and most predictions are that it won’t — the economy will not be the huge political negative that the Democrats had hoped for.
Presidents tend to win re-election in war time, or what passes for war time. I would include Harry Truman (Cold War) and Richard Nixon (Vietnam) in this category. Their second terms tend to be awful, full of near-riotous controversy and dissension. But they tend to win.
It’s a simple fact, but true: If you’re an incumbent, you have a better than 2-1 chance of winning re-election. You have the whole machinery of government at your disposal. You have inertia on your side. The late Lee Atwater, the enfant terrible of the GOP, once told me that an incumbent president is like the guy in the rowboat with a paddle. His main aim is to use that paddle to clobber anyone who tries to climb in. They usually (though not always) can do so. Of course, this president knows full well who one of the exceptions is: his own father.
The president downplayed the likelihood that the U.S. would get any useful intel out of Saddam. I’m not so sure. There is at least the potential of an upside politically, if the interrogators over the next weeks and months can tease real info out of Saddam and the many other top leaders of his clique that are in American custody. If there is evidence of WMD or direct relationships with al-Qaida, the administration has a chance — a better chance — to buttress the original justification for the war. If they cant’ find anything, the trial of Saddam will underscore, at least, the virtue of having gone after him for the sake of simple morality.
Howard Dean or not, the Democrats, for the most part, are simply cratering in the South. The Democratic ticket across the region will be weakened next year by the absence of five incumbent Democratic senators, all of whom, for one reason or another, decided to retire. One of them is Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana. Dean man Trippi told me the other day he thought that Louisiana was one of the states that his man could win in a general election. Without the popular Breaux on the ticket? I doubt it.
The war in Iraq has only begun to divide the Democrats. It will divide them further the closer they get to the general election. The fight to deny Dean the nomination is getting pretty vicious, and you ain’t seen nothing yet. I know that a spirited fight can and often does invigorate a party. The Dems tend to get juiced up by their family feuds. But there are two worlds in the party now, the DeanWorld, where they truly love the guy, and the UnDean one, where they see him as a disaster in waiting. The struggle over the tone and content of the convention will be intense — and not helpful.
Again, none of this means that Bush is a cinch. We’re more than 11 months from election day. Bush’s “re-elect” numbers are weak. BC04 officials think it’s going to be close, and I don think they are simply trying to lower expectations. It’s likely that election day in November will see a lower stock market and higher unemployment rate than existed on the day Bush took office. History shows that president’s don’t get reelected under those circumstances. Something’s got to give. We have to wait a while to find out what.
Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.