By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
With a year left before the 2004 elections, President Bush’s fortunes flip-flopped in the face of two days of strong economic data this month: he faces trouble in Iraq but triumph on the economy.
Such a reversal certainly surprised Washington’s chatterers, who, depending on political persuasion, predicted economic trouble to doom Bush’s re-election bid or Iraq success to rescue it.
Instead, Bush’s economic policies are delivering him better employment, more consumer spending and a greater gross domestic product. Iraq, meanwhile, is turning into a weakness.
So while the political picture of November 2003 has changed drastically from that of October, the overall prognosis looks the same: Bush still looks beatable on one of the two broad topics and strong on the other.
Political analysts no longer believe the economy works as a plausible Democratic advantage, and Democrats hold a tenuous advantage on Iraq .
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer has mocked the Democratic strategy of calling the second Bush recession the “worst economy since the Great Depression,” calling such argumentation an “absurdity.”
“The recent economic news was a devastating blow to their White House chances,” he wrote.
Attempts to pin a Clinton-era economy on George W. Bush seem to have failed, partly because the public never bought it. Bush’s approval ratings remained at historically high levels even when the economy stood still.
The numbers stagger the hopes of the Democrats’ baseball team-nine candidates bumbling to catch a curveball caused in large part by Bush’s-much-criticized tax cuts.
Last quarter, the economy grew 7.2 percent, the largest growth in 19 years. In October, payroll employment grew by 126,000 jobs. August and September job numbers were adjusted from a slight increase to a large one-160,000 new jobs. Together, those numbers equal the largest three-month employment gain since the 2001 recession ended.
“Timing is everything in politics,” said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “And it doesn’t hurt to have good policy behind you.”
As data were released, Democratic responses stumbled from apocalyptic, “worst economy” hyperbole to “jobless recovery” wish-think to stunned silence.
But question marks remain, particularly Bush’s contribution to a budget deficit that could reach record proportions.
Fiscal irresponsibility by a Republican president once seemed as oxymoronic as a Democrat balancing the budget; yet Clinton’s balanced budget has turned into Bush’s deficit, which has not escaped Democratic notice.
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said in a Wall Street Journal column he would repeal all or most of Bush’s tax cuts to bring in more money and erase the deficit. But now that tax credits have been cited as a main force behind the astronomical economic jumpstart, such a campaign promise is exposed as foolishness.
“We were told the deficit would increase interest rates,” Franc said, “but that’s a hard sell when people are running around refinancing all over the place.”
Interest rates remain low, and until they rise, Democratic hopes of injecting the deficit as a relevant political topic will fail. Meanwhile, Bush suddenly plays the economic genius, while the Democrats can only follow the bouncing, yet rising, economic ball.
The president, thought to be invincible on foreign affairs until just a few weeks ago, seemed lost in promoting Iraq’s many success stories until he touted Iraq as the opening salvo in a campaign for wider democracy in the world’s least democratic region.
Bush invoked Ronald Reagan, who 20 years ago predicted the end of communism and the explosion of democracy worldwide.
Despite criticism at the time, Reagan was proved correct, Bush said. “The great democratic movement President Reagan described was already well underway.”
Bush nailed the analogy, said Dr. Neal Coates, assistant professor of political science. If Bush can succeed in casting the global war on terrorism as a 21st century version of the global Cold War on communism, the Demo-crats in the field will again be neutralized.
“If Bush wishes to cement his place in American history,” Coates said, “it won’t be as the defeater of a tyrant. … Will he cement his place as someone who truly pushes for democracy in the Middle East? It’s a tough thing to balance when you’re trying to get re-elected.”
But the very issue on which Bush appears weak-the war in Iraq, both its justification and its execution-also mystifies his opponents. Gen. Wesley Clark managed to articulate three separate positions on its necessity in the first two days of his campaign. Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards have attempted to mitigate votes for war with stern criticism.
Yet the failure to find weapons of mass destruction could prove troublesome, Coates said, especially if it leads to unfounded accusations of politicized intelligence.
“They were there,” Coates said, noting that Clinton administration officials and other countries had all expressed Bush’s pre-war certainty on the subject at varying times. “Everyone agrees they were there. … As far as where they went, we have 1,400 people working on it right now.”
Nobility and ultimate truth aside, appearances will defeat Bush if soldiers continue to die in the Sunni triangle-the 15 percent of Iraq that makes the evening newscasts.
President Bush shored up his conservative base by signing the “partial-birth” abortion ban into law, Coates noted. The signing rallied social and religious conservatives at a time when economic conservatives have questioned his policies.
Bloated farm subsidies and for-politics steel tariffs shook economic conservatives, and a steady increase in the size of the federal government has created strong critics out of those who find nothing likable in the Democratic field.
“It creates the impression that president Bush is not a small-government conservative,” Franc said.
And that impression, with the impression of an unstable Iraq, could prove troublesome if Bush faces a candidate such as Sen. Joe Lieberman, who wears his moderate merits on his sleeve.
But a Bush victory has reached near-inevitability, considering the likelihood of a Kerry or Dean nomination. Clinton struck political gold when his 1992 campaign captured the economic hearts and minds of the electorate to defeat Bush’s father with a simple phrase-“it’s the economy, stupid.”
If the recent trends hold, Bush 43 will find advantage in those words against Democratic challengers, who will spend four more years trying to decipher how an election campaign unhinged in two days in November 2003.