A year ahead, political playing field is murky and shifting
By Chuck Raasch | Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON — A year before the 2004 elections, President Bush has lost the rally effect he gained after the terrorist attacks, the Democrats running for president are split on the war in Iraq and neither party appears to have much of an advantage leading up to House and Senate races next year.
The political course of 2004 remains heavily dependent upon yet-to-be-made headlines on two dominant issues: the economy and the overall war on terror, especially the war in Iraq. If, a year from now the news is bad on both or either front, Bush’s re-election could be in doubt. But if there is progress — especially on jobs or a breakthrough in the war — Bush and his Republican Party could solidify their hold on the government.
“Many Americans agree with President Bush that news reports from Iraq are making the situation there seem worse than it really is, but that has not stemmed rising public unease over the U.S. military presence in Iraq,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “At home, the trend in economic attitudes presents a much less mixed — and much more negative — message for the White House.”
Kohut’s Oct. 15-19 poll showed that two-thirds of Americans now think it’s hard to get a job in their community, a percentage that has steadily climbed this year, and that 43 percent believe Bush’s economic policies are making the economy worse. Only 18 percent said they thought Bush’s policies had made the economy better.
For anyone paying scant or no attention to the politics of 2003, here is where things stand a year ahead of the 2004 elections:
Bush’s job approval, which soared after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has fallen into the 50 percent range. His economic policies, heavily hinged on tax cuts that have yet to spur great job growth, are getting increasingly tough reviews.
But Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager, said in an interview that Bush still starts the 2004 campaign season with positive attributes. Mehlman said Bush’s job-approval ratings, relative to some past presidents, remains relatively high. He is still seen as a strong leader by many Americans, and he still defeats Democrats — albeit closely — in most early ballot tests.
One theme of the president’s re-election campaign, Mehlman said, would be to show Bush as the leader of efforts to “turn challenges into opportunities” on both the economy and the war on terrorism. Bush routinely highlights how his tax cuts softened the blow of recession and that the United States had seized the initiative after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The nine Democrats lining up for Bush’s job have conducted a rough-and-tumble series of debates, with aspiring outsiders like Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark challenging Washington-based candidates like Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Dick Gephardt of Missouri.
Dean and Clark highlight their opposition to the Iraq invasion, while Kerry, Lieberman and Gephardt all voted last fall to give Bush the authority to use force to remove Saddam Hussein. This anti-war split has been overshadowed, at times, by increasingly harsh attacks on Bush.
“What we’re really about is not anger, it’s hope,” said Dean, among the earliest and harshest Bush critics. “Is there some anger? Sure.” Dean said there is anger directed at Bush for job losses and what he calls America’s “loss of face and loss of respect around the world.”
GOP chances in House, Senate
The big story in the fight for Congress has been the GOP’s inability to match its 2002 recruiting successes. The party attempted to get big-name candidates to challenge potentially vulnerable Democratic senators in Washington, Illinois, Arkansas and elsewhere, but were turned down. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles of Oklahoma is not running again, opening what was thought to be a solid Republican state as a new Democratic opportunity.
Still Republicans have opportunities, especially in the South, where incumbents are not seeking re-election in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. In Florida, Democratic Sen. Bob Graham will announce Monday whether he will run for a fourth term.
In the House, neither party has recruited enough top challengers to predict a huge swing either way. Many analysts predict the status quo will most likely remain, with Republicans holding a slim majority. The GOP controls the House by 23 votes, since it has 229 seats. The Democrats hold 205, and there is one independent who votes with them.
If Republicans lose 12 seats, control would go back to the Democrats for the first time in a decade.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful campaign and the recall of Gov. Gray Davis in California forecast the potential of an anger- and angst-driven wave in the 2004 elections. Some Republicans worry that if a repeat occurs across the country next year, the backlash could be directed at Bush and his party. And in recent polls, majorities have expressed dissatisfaction about the country’s overall direction.
Bush’s big challenge will be to turn that direction around. It’s very hard for an incumbent president to get re-elected in a climate of unease, especially one overlaid with security concerns.
One thing in Bush’s favor: The Democrats’ anti-Bush rhetoric has been tough, but it has been overshadowed by the party’s division on the war and cultural issues.
While the anti-war, pro-gun control forces are strong in primary fights, a significant centrist faction exists, a strong remnant of Bill Clinton’s days as president. Led by the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist positions are probably best represented by Lieberman, the 2000 vice presidential nominee. Some centrist Democrats, for instance, blame Al Gore’s gun control positions for his 2000 presidential loss.
The DLC last month held a conference here titled: “God, Guns and Guts: Seizing the Cultural Center.”
Mehlman, the Bush campaign manager, said Bush campaign officials reviewed the papers of recent presidents facing re-election. One thing stood out: Successful candidates first outlined a positive image before running negative advertisements about their opponents.
The Democrats, Mehlman said, seem to be ignoring that game plan this time. He said “a small amount of activists who are angry and who dislike this president” have dominated the Democratic presidential primary so far.