May 09, 2003

PoliColumn

The following appeared in the May 8th, 2003 edition of the Birmingham Post-Herald. (One minor correction: Bush gains seven electoral votes as a result of re-apportionment, not eight as the column states).

2004 Campaign is Not the Elder Bush's Election Cycle

Steven L. Taylor, Ph.D.

Amazingly, the 2004 presidential campaign is well underway, a mere 500-plus days from the actual election itself. A clear sign that the process is crackling along is that the nine declared candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination assembled this weekend for the first debate of the campaign season.

A casual perusal of the news might give one a profound sense of déjà vu: a man named George Bush is in the White House, the United States has just won a decisive military victory in Iraq, the President is enjoying high approval numbers, and a key political issue is the health of the economy. Indeed, it could very well be May, 1991, rather than May, 2003. The Democrats hope that the parallels continue to include a plunge in the popularity of the incumbent President, and his eventual defeat at the polls in November of next year.

However, there are also some substantial differences, with perhaps the most significant being that the national security issue was off the table in 1991-1992, and the issue was the economy (we all should recall the famous “It’s the Economy, Stupid” banners in the Clinton election HQ). In 1992 the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall toppled and the Soviet Union was no more. In that context, George H. W. Bush’s strong suit, i.e., national security, was not a huge help in his electoral campaign against Bill Clinton. The forty-first President’s impressive resume, which included Director of Central Intelligence, Ambassador to China, Vice President, and victorious Commander-in-Chief in Gulf War I were all simply niceties, not the strengths they would have been in years past. From the end of World War II until the Berlin Wall fell, Americans looked to the President, whomever he was, to protect us from the threat of Soviet ICBMs. In 1992, that threat, indeed almost all international threats, seemed faint memories.

However, in the 2004 electoral cycle, this is not the case. The economy is important, as always, but national security is back, and in a big way. The events of September 11, 2001 thrust back upon the national psyche the idea that danger lurked beyond our borders. During the Cold War the threat of attack was real, but abstract—we never experienced a direct attack on our soil. Under the new War on Terror, the threat is manifestly concrete, and we fear additional violence against us. Given that President Bush has been successful in his prosecution of the War on Terror, look for that to redound to him positively at the ballot box next November. In 1991, the victory against the Iraqis was seen to be the end of a specific conflict, while in 2003, the victory against Saddam’s regime is seen as part of a wider problem, and therefore the significance of the current victory will not fade the way it did for the President’s father.

If President Bush simply wins the same states we won in 2000, he will gain eight electoral votes, due to the reallocation of congressional seats after the recent census. This is not to say that the President is a shoe-in, as the electoral math may still be tricky, considering the closeness of Florida in 2000, and the fact that both California and New York have been strong Democratic strongholds in recent elections. Democrats banking on anger related to the 2000 recount propelling a Democrat to victory in Florida need to remember that the President’s brother won re-election to the governorship in 2002 by a margin of 12.8%.

Further, instead of being an untested challenger, George W. Bush will be the sitting President—which is a formidable asset. Voters, especially independents and the apolitical will look at Mr. Bush as the Command-in-Chief who oversaw two successful wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) and compare him to a Democratic nominee likely not to have any executive experience, and little, if any, actual foreign policy experience.

Indeed, just looking at the current line-up of Democratic contenders, we see that history is not on their side. The Senators (Lieberman, Kerry and Edwards) have to deal with the fact that the last candidate to successfully make the transition from the Senate to the White House was in 1960 when John Kennedy managed the feat—and the White House was open that year, i.e., he was running against the sitting Vice President, not a sitting President. Mr. Gephardt has to deal with the fact that the last time a member of the House was elevated to the Presidency was 1880 when James Garfield won.

In short: this electoral campaign will play out quite differently than that of 1991-1992. National security will play a great role in the debate, and barring utter economic disaster, look for President Bush to enjoy a comfortable victory in 2004.

Steven L. Taylor is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Troy State University.

Posted by Steven Taylor at May 9, 2003 09:50 AM | TrackBack
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