Why Bush Isn't a Shoo-In

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"I understand there's been some activity in the state of new Hampshire recently," President Bush said last week, parachuting into the Granite State two days after the Democratic primary. His carefully scrubbed visit to the Fidelity Investments office in Merrimack had been planned for weeks. It was billed as a conversation with the President about the state of the economy, but there wasn't much actual conversing going on, just a series of testimonials from selected employees about the glories of the Bush tax cuts. Compared with the bracing, scruffy spontaneity of the primary, this seemed a Madame Tussaud's waxworks version of democracy. But then, George W. Bush has spent the past three years packed in political bubble-wrap, sequestered from the realities of the public square. He doesn't read the papers, or so he says. The televisions in the West Wing are tuned to the flag-brandishing filter of Fox News. Bush rarely fields a hostile question—not even, sadly, at press conferences, where he selects his interrogators from a list prepared by staff. All that is about to change.

While the Democratic candidates have cavorted among the people—and in the process shed the sallow, boring defensiveness of the past three years—the President hasn't been having a very happy winter. His State of the Union speech was eminently forgettable, except, perhaps, for his declaration of war on steroid use by athletes. Iraq remains a mess. Ten more Americans were killed there last week, and eight more in Afghanistan, which makes the President's Merrimack assertion of success in the war on terrorism—"Now we're marching to peace ... now we're secure in the peace"—seem insensitive in the extreme. David Kay, the President's hand-picked weapons inspector, said there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The economy remains iffy. The budget deficit is exploding. Even Rush Limbaugh had unkind words last week about the Bush spending spree.

Of course "knowledgeable observers" believe that Bush is the prohibitive favorite for re-election this year. There are, in fact, good reasons to believe that, but there are also some urban myths at play here, most of which have to do with Republican toughness and Democratic wimpitude. The best reason to believe in Bush's inevitability is his incumbency. It requires a terrific candidate and a perfect campaign—Bill Clinton in 1992—or disastrous times to dislodge a sitting President. This President can be charming and eloquent on the stump. He is surrounded by a first-rate political team. The economy will probably improve. Osama bin Laden could be captured. A President can usually set the tone and the agenda to his liking.

But there's also a fair amount of idle chatter—and a widespread presumption in the media—about the congenital strengths that Republicans have and Democrats lack in presidential contests. The $200 million Bush campaign bankroll is cited. The 1988 demolition of Michael Dukakis is remembered. Democrats are eternally tangled in factions; Republicans just seem more solid and, well, American (if your definition of "American" was frozen in 1954). But there is growing evidence that the election of 2004 is inventing its own rules. Indeed, the Democratic primaries have demolished—delightfully—most of what passes for conventional wisdom these days. The importance of money and organization, for starters. Howard Dean had lots of both, and where did it get him? In any case, the Democratic nominee will have plenty of cash to compete with the Bush bankroll: liberal gazillionaires have pledged tens of millions, with more to come, to independent organizations like MoveOn.Org, which have the right to run political-advocacy ads on television so long as they don't directly endorse a candidate.

The assumption of liberal meekness may also prove faulty. There is no doubt that the Republican-political-industrial complex will try to paint the Democrats as loose, latte-chugging Úlitists. A two-track—high-road, low-road—attack on John Kerry began on cue last week. Republican chairman Ed Gillespie said Kerry had been weak on defense, voting against crucial weapons systems; meanwhile, the Drudge Report and other tabloid patriots spread the rumor that Kerry had improved his looks with Botox injections. But Gillespie had to concede that Kerry had an "honorable" war record, and the Drudge insinuation of narcissism was trumped by the grizzled Vietnam veterans who surrounded Kerry in victory. I suspect, or maybe I just hope, that there may be too much at stake this year—basic questions of war and solvency—for the ancient epithets to have much sting.

This primary campaign is the best thing that has happened to the Democratic Party since Bill Clinton. It is reborn and feisty, thanks in large part to the partisan jolt provided by Dean. The leading Democrats are now making strong, sharp arguments against the President's most fateful decisions: the blind rush into an elective war, the economic and legislative tilt toward the wealthy. If recent performances are any guide, the President hasn't developed an adequate response yet. He will have to break free from his cocoon and reacquaint himself with the public, if he hopes to find one.