Friday, May 02, 2003

Thinking about the election
Part 2 - Not necessarily doomed

The war is over and the election has begun. Bush's little trip to California is typical of what we can expect for the next year and a half: photo ops with military hardware (The USS Abraham Lincoln) and friendly military crowds, avoiding any possibility of being protested (San Francisco), hobnobbing with world leaders who supported his war and snubbing those who did not (John Howard of Australia and Jean Chretien of Canada, respectively), and limiting economic talk to someplace that will prosper from a military build-up (United Defense Industries of Santa Clara, developer of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle). That is: easy crowds, no air time for critics, petty carrot and stick behavior, and the constant presence of images military might and security.

You can't blame him for playing to his strengths (well, actually I do blame him, but that's the subject of a different essay). And he has lots of strengths coming into the election season. However, there are eighteen months between now and the election. Lots can happen. Wednesday I went over some of his advantages. Today I'll go over some of the things that could happen to his disadvantage. Later I'll suggest some ways the opposition--both the Democratic Party and others--might help those things happen.

Bush might self destruct - The press and the left love to point out that Bush Jr's poll numbers are lower than Bush Sr's were after his war in Iraq. Dad also had a less bad economy and he still lost. The wishful thinking subtext in constantly repeating this narrative is that we can just sit back and wait for history to repeat itself ("subtext" "narrative" my social science background is showing, isn't it).

The problem is that the Bush camarilla knows this story. They know they must do something between now and the election. Even if they don't help the economy they must at least look busy. And if that fails they'll start another foreign adventure, ratchet the security alarm to orange, and announce that they've made us safe from brown terrorists again.

So, where's the hope in this? Simple, the more they rush around trying to look busy, the greater chance there is that they will do something stupid. Last fall's election and the war have pushed administration's hubris to unbelievable heights. There is a very real possibility that they will push their luck too far and either offend a large portion of the public or just make fools of themselves. Either way, the magic aura of leadership gets tarnished.

The press might revolt - In 2000 the press hated Gore and took every opportunity to paint him as corrupt and insincere. While they sometimes portrayed Bush as a fool, they portrayed him as a sincere, moderate fool. Even his foolishness was sometimes spun as a sign of his just-folks simplicity. Anti-intellectualism always sells in America and in the Bush-Gore race this element was spun entirely to Bush's favor by the press.

Since then, that same press has had to put up with the administration's compulsive secretiveness, Ari Fleisher's contempt and rudeness, and the knowledge that they were used in the election. While many will no doubt continue with the "bold and decisive man for our times" storyline, there is a good chance that many will construct a new story, one that Bush may not like. The same events that have been spun as the man rising to the moment can also be spun as a tale of shameless opportunism and cynicism.

The right might split - The Republican Party and the right in general are no more of a monolith that the Democrats or the left (OK, maybe a little more, but stick with me for the sake of my argument). Not all of the right are happy with the extremist course the administration is taking. In particular, the fiscal conservatives and libertarians have good reason to be unhappy. They can only stay in denial about endless deficits and eroding civil rights for so long.

I can think of a number of ways disgruntled rightists might revolt. Top among the ways are: field a moderate Republican candidate in the primaries, vote for a third party, vote Democratic, or stay home on election day. Any of these would drastically alter the election calculus. Less likely, but intriguing, is the possibility that attempts to discipline moderate Republicans in the Senate might drive them from the party. The party seems to have forgotten the lesson of Jim Jeffords. If Senators Snowe, Voinovich, and Chaffee joined Jeffords to form a third block in the Senate, they would hold the balance of power on any close vote. What this means to the election is less clear to me.

The public might come to its senses - I suppose “why don’t they see how bad he is?” is always the cry of the opposition. In some ways our frustration is just politics as usual, but in very real ways, the public is cutting Bush an amazing amount of slack. A lot of that slack is based on the rally-around-the-flag and follow-the-guy-who-looks-like-he-knows-what-he’s-doing that people fall back on in emergencies. The administration has taken full advantage of this. However, the administration has gotten away with a lot under cover of crises that they would not have gotten away with in less stressed times.

Any of the previous three situations could result in the public becoming disillusioned with Bush. War weariness could set in if he overplayed his hand by starting a third or fourth war. People might finally notice that they have been talking about a permanent state of emergency and a decade-long war against terrorism. If the press changes its story, the public will follow (if only because the new story will be carefully tested and what the public wants to hear). A mutiny in his party could tear large portions of the public away from their passive support.

We might have a nice scandal - This is a favorite fantasy among those of us who not only want to see the administration defeated, but want to see them humiliated and held up to scorn in history books for generations to come. There's lots of candidates for this one, and some don't even involve Cheney. This too requires support from the press. There is enough corruption and cronyism in this administration to have brought down a half-dozen Clintons. All we really need is the right combination of hungry politicians, reporters, and venues to pick the scandal and run with it. The biggest obstruction to scandal swallowing them now is the fact that they control both houses of Congress, preventing the sort of endless investigations Clinton faced (though an angry state or city government cold stand in for Congress).

The Democrats might do something right - Stop laughing. I’m serious. It could happen. The Democrats are angry. Many feel Bush stole the 2000 election. Many feel he broke a promise to govern as a bipartisan moderate. Many feel he has been cynical and unprincipled in using the 9/11 aftermath to push through a radical agenda. Many feel that he has been deceptive and dishonest in his actions, and he has gotten away with it, and that cheeses us to no end.
If the Democrats get mad enough, they just might get their act together. The Democrats need to give up their passive ways. The party need pick their issues and attack first. Don’t let Karl Rove define the issues. The presidential candidates need to agree that Bush is the enemy and not waste their energy fighting each other. Democrats in congress need to define a set of core issues and be uncompromising on them. Democratic office-holders in states and municipalities need to howl like banshees over White House betrayals on finances and especially security. Finally, anyone who’s not a Bush family member or card carrying dittohead needs to get out and vote.

Next year is going to be a mean ugly election. Bush has huge advantages going in to it, but it is by no means a done deal

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