A second term is Bush's to lose

It seems to be a good moment to pose a few questions.

Q: What is the president's political standing and his likely political future?

George W. Bush's poll ratings were in the high 70s immediately following the war in Iraq. And although this standing has dropped a bit, it still is reminiscent of his father's high approval following the 1991 Gulf War.

Most observers thought the elder Bush's popularity would hold up. I recall the roar of acclaim that greeted him shortly after the war when he entered the banquet hall at the annual affair of the Gridiron Club (the exclusive Washington journalists' group). Journalists joined with government officials and business leaders to cheer him to the rafters.

As Bush stood at the speaker's table, with yellow roses covering the wall behind him, we thought we saw a conquering hero who would be unbeatable in the next presidential election.

But Bush's popularity plummeted as the public memory of the war quickly faded when he didn't deal effectively with a faltering economy. And then he lost his bid for reelection. Some observers are predicting that this will happen to George W. But I don't think so.

I believe that W's situation is more like that of Franklin D. Roosevelt than that of his father. And FDR was an unbeatable war president from Pearl Harbor on. Before that, starting with 1932, he had swept from victory to victory because of the way he had dealt with economic woes. But it was Roosevelt's war leadership that made him unbeatable as he won a fourth term even though the voters could see, in newspaper photos and on Pathé News reels at the movies, that their president had become frail.

I think that George W. - like FDR - will remain a widely admired war president, a standing he first achieved from the way he responded to the terrorism of Sept. 11, a standing enhanced by his emergence as a strong war leader.

No, I don't think this will give him the clout that will let him get all he wants as he pushes his domestic programs. We have seen that as he has had to compromise on his tax-cut requests. But his war-against-terrorism and national-security requests will be heeded.

And, like Roosevelt and not like his dad, he may well be unbeatable when he seeks another term.

Q: Who would be the strongest Democratic candidate against him?

Those Democrats who clearly opposed the Iraq war - like Howard Dean and Bob Graham - might win the nomination. Liberal Democrats are looking for an antiwar candidate, pollsters tell us. But against this war president such a nominee could become the George McGovern of 2004.

Joseph Lieberman, Richard Gephardt, John Edwards, and John Kerry possess the needed credentials for taking on Bush: They all voted for the congressional war resolution. But I'd say a military man, some general or admiral, would be the best candidate the Democrats could field at this time.

I think that everyone would agree that if there were a General Eisenhower out there who was a Democrat and interested in being president, well, he might give Bush a run for his money.

Had FDR lived, he probably could have won again in 1948 - had he wanted a fifth term and had the strength to seek it. But in his absence, the war hero, Eisenhower, had the presidency thrust in his direction when President Truman said to him when they were together in Germany right after the war: "General, there is nothing that you may want that I won't try to help you get. That definitely and specifically includes the presidency in 1948."

It turned out that Eisenhower wasn't interested in running for president at the time. Further, the voters found a few years later that he was really a Republican, a disclosure that caused a miffed Truman to break off his friendship with Eisenhower - so much so that he came close to refusing to take the ride to the inaugural with the general when Ike succeeded Truman as president. (I mentioned Eisenhower's relationship with Truman in an interview I had with Truman after he had retired and he snapped, "I don't have any use for that fellow.")

But there is no celebrity Democrat general waiting in the wings that I know of. There is retired Gen. Wesley Clark. He does well enough as a military analyst on TV. But I don't think that will carry him very far politically. Oh, yes, there is one military man whose political horizon has seemed unlimited. That's Colin Powell. But the last I heard, he was a Republican.

Q: Who then - and what - could beat this formidable Mr. Bush?

He could beat himself by gross mismanagement of the peace in Iraq - coupled with a sudden, deep decline in the economy. I just don't see this happening.

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