Among conservative pundits, it is all but gospel truth. Regarding President Bush’s re-election prospects, we are facing a repeat of 1992. Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Niall Ferguson stated:
“On January 16, 1991 the U.S. went to war against Iraq. Almost overnight, the first President Bush’s approval rating jumped from 64% to 85%. But after that war ended, the victor’s laurels withered as the economic slowdown made itself felt. By the time Americans voted in November 1992, his approval rating had been below the halfway line for six months. George II may soon face a similar scenario. If he wins the war but loses on the economy he will not be the first incumbent to do so. Nor the first Bush.”
With the President enjoying sky-high approval ratings in the wake of the second war against Iraq, and with the news last Friday of a sluggish 1.6% growth in first-quarter GDP, prepare yourself for many more of these comparisons to come.
Fortunately, such comparisons are inaccurate. Some factors, like economic concerns, affect most elections. Yet each election also has its peculiarities, and sometimes those peculiarities overwhelm the normal factors. It is likely 2004 will be quite peculiar.
One way 2004 is not 1992 is that George II will not have a primary opponent like George I did in Patrick Buchanan. His handling of the War on Terrorism has made George II immensely popular among the Republican rank-and-file, and he will emerge from the primaries with a united party behind him. In an important respect, 2004 will resemble 1996. Like Bill Clinton, Bush II will enter the general election with a huge campaign war-chest (current estimates put it at $200 million). The Democratic candidate will probably have depleted his due to an expensive primary campaign and will have to wait for matching funds to kick in before he can run advertising again. In 1996 Clinton took advantage of this funding imbalance to “define the campaign early,” running many ads linking Bob Dole with the unpopular Newt Gingrich. Dole never recovered. Surely the Bush II campaign will do something similar to its Democratic opponent.
The transition from the primary campaign to the general election will make 2004 different from 1992 in another important way. All successful Presidential candidates must find ways to appeal to their party base during the primary, and then appeal to more moderate voters during the general election. Sometimes, though, an animated base pulls the eventual nominee too far to one side of the ideological spectrum. Currently, much of the Democratic rank-and-file is animated by a loathing of Bush II: they oppose his domestic policies, hate his decision to go to war with Iraq, and think he stole the 2000 election. This adds up to a base that wants a very left-wing candidate. It is reflected in the high poll numbers of the vociferously anti-war Howard Dean, John Kerry’s ill-conceived “regime change” remark, and Dick Gephardt’s proposal to trade tax cuts for government-funded health care. The resulting Democratic nominee may enter the general-election campaign positioned even further to the left than Walter Mondale. And we all know how well he did against the Gipper.
The final reason the comparison with 1992 doesn’t hold is that this time the “war” is different. The first war with Iraq was not an issue in 1992 because its objective had been achieved and it was not part of any larger effort. The second war with Iraq, however, is part of the larger War on Terrorism. This alters the campaign dynamic significantly. In 2004 Democrats may be able to say “It’s the economy stupid”; but, unlike 1992, Republicans will be able to reply “No, it’s the War on Terrorism, idiot.” The fact that the third anniversary of 9/11 occurs only two months before the 2004 election will only amplify terrorism concerns among the electorate. Ultimately, the GOP will ask voters, “Who do you want in the Oval Office when the next problem in the War on Terrorism occurs?” If November 2002 is any indication, Bush II wins that one hands down.
Certainly a strong economy would help Bush’s re-election chances. But more than likely a sluggish economy will only narrow his eventual margin of victory, not bring him down to defeat. Rather, a cash-strapped Democratic opponent, a polarized Democratic Party, and the War on Terrorism will ensure that 2004 will not be a repeat of 1992.