A Great Victory
Still, pundits, like astrologers, dont go broke for being wrong. People just want the momentary comfort of feeling slightly less uncertain about the future, I suppose. And when you live in Washington, where the action is, they think you know something they dont.
But last week I heard a strange and provocative prediction, more intuitive than analytical. I cant even remember who made it. But he ventured the opinion that, despite polls showing Bush and Kerry running even, this years election wont even be close.
Yes? Yes? But whos going to win? Ah, there my wizard grew Delphic, like the famous oracle that announced, There will be a great victory. It may be Bush, it may be Kerry, but either way, he said, it will be decisive. As November approaches, the publics mood will break sharply in favor of one of the candidates.
The more I pondered this, the more plausible it seemed. Right now President Bushs approval ratings are dangerously low for an incumbent. The reasons he gave for the Iraq war have been repeatedly discredited, most recently by the Senate intelligence committees damning report. The occupation was frustrating enough without the shameful revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. We no longer hear of the axis of evil; the lurid pre-war rhetoric has become passé. Senators who once supported the war now say it was a mistake; most Americans now agree.
The administration keeps issuing terrorism alerts, even as Bush boasts that the war has made us safer. This contradiction confuses what has otherwise been a clear message, and its highly possible that swing voters will decide that four years of taut nerves, with no clear benefit, have been enough. Kerry may be boring, but that may be an asset, coming after the most stressful presidency in recent memory.
The Karl Rove strategy will be to make the Massachusetts liberal sound scary, but crying Wolf! works only so many times. After Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, Kerry isnt much of a bogeyman. And he isnt that far to the left of Bush himself.
Both candidates have irreducible bases of around 43 per cent. Bush excites more hostility, but Kerry will also have Ralph Nader to worry about. Swing voters will be faced with a choice between two kinds of big government: Republican militarism, plus vast social spending, and Democratic domestic socialism, complete with abortion funding and same-sex unions.
Unappetizing alternatives, but Kerry offers relative calm and a sense of normality. At this point Id expect the vote to break his way. Even Bay State liberals have lost their terror.
But of course you never know. A spectacular terrorist incident could change everything, restoring Bushs powerful appeal as a war president.
Yet even that appeal may not work twice, given the growing sense that Bush has mishandled the 9/11 challenge. In fact, a repeat of 9/11 might aggravate the feeling that Bushs war on terror has achieved nothing. He wouldnt be able to pin new terrorist activities on Saddam.
Kerrys greatest asset is negative. If not exactly a peace candidate, he doesnt stand for war. That may be enough. No candidate gets elected by promising war. Incumbents have always had to conceal their warlike intentions: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson had to deceive the public to win reelection.
This is hardly an option for Bush. He has openly chosen to be identified with war. He has made it a point of pride, but with diminishing political returns, and at this point its hard to imagine undecided voters finding it a plus.
In order to be reelected, a president has to wear pretty well. But Bush is too inflexible to admit mistakes and change course, and his presidency has already been hard on the national nervous system. Even voters who think hes done a decent job may feel its time to bring in a relief pitcher. His fireball has lost most of its heat.
Just a hunch, mind you, not a prediction. Maybe the voters who will decide the election will choose four more years not only of Bush, but of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, and the rest of the hard-liners. I just find it improbable.
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