Bush Redux?: Don’t Count on It

Andrew E. Busch

April 1, 2003

With the apparent end of organized combat in Iraq, attention has been refocused on the presidential election of 2002 and the reelection prospects of George W. Bush. Many analysts have pointed to the experience of Bush’s father, who won a great victory against Iraq, attained an 89 percent approval rating, and lost to Bill Clinton only twenty months later. These analysts perform a service by pointing out that a year and a half in presidential politics can be a very long time, indeed.

On the other hand, the Bush-Bush analogy is almost certainly overdrawn, for several reasons.

First, the issue arena has been transformed much more fundamentally by 9-11 and Operation Iraqi Freedom than by Operation Desert Storm. While Iraq I was a noble victory, it was a distant war. Iraq II was personal, because 9-11 was personal. While some Americans and many Europeans questioned the precise connection between Iraq and 9-11, most Americans understood quite well that Saddam was on the same side of the playing field as al-Qaeda, a fact since underscored by the Ansar al-Islam training camps and the 9-11 commemorative murals and cigarette lighters found by coalition forces in Iraq. To most Americans—as to the Bush administration itself—Iraq II was simply a continuation of our national determination to carry the fight to our enemies. Consequently, the political after-effects of the Iraq victory are likely to be stronger and longer lasting for Bush II than for Bush I.

Second, in a related vein, as some Democratic analysts have mournfully noted, Iraq I had a definite ending point. The war being prosecuted by Bush is an open-ended one, with no obvious finish line in sight. While the left blames this fact on Bush’s Machiavellian manipulation, most Americans are likely to see it as flowing naturally from the fact that our enemies are themselves waging an open-ended war against us. In 1991, the Gulf War could be seen as an ending point in itself: an exclamation point put on the Cold War, won with a Cold War arsenal that was about to be largely dismantled. It marked the last moment for a decade when national security was the preeminent public concern. From the perspective of early 2003, on the other hand, national security is not going away anytime soon; we seem closer to the beginning of an era than to the end.

Third, the decision by George H. W. Bush to stop short of complete victory and the failure of the subsequent anti-Saddam uprising became increasingly clear (and increasingly bothersome) to voters. By November 1992, it was not clear whether Iraq was a net gain or net loss for the president in public opinion. While the rebuilding of Iraq leaves open the potential for ongoing difficulties of a different sort, the particular problem facing Bush I has been obviated by the total destruction of the Iraqi regime by Bush II.

Fourth, Bush II is unlikely to allow himself to be caught flat-footed in the domestic arena as his father was. This difference is partly due to the example of 1992 itself, which the younger Bush has not forgotten. It also flows from a fundamental difference between the Bushes. Bush I was, essentially, a foreign policy president who had little interest in domestic affairs. When circumstances demanded that he shift his attention, he did not know how. Bush II was elected as a domestic president, with a significant and purposeful domestic agenda. He has become, by force of circumstance—not by preference or design—a foreign policy president. More generally, he is a president who understands politics, who understands coalition-building and maintenance, as well as how to attack opponents’ weaknesses, in a way his father never did.

Finally, 1992 has already happened, as have the resulting eight years of the Clinton presidency with all of its consequences. To say “It’s the economy, stupid”—as if foreign policy was suddenly irrelevant—might have worked in 1992, but might not work in 2004. Americans now have experience with candidates who run and govern on that basis. They have experience with the high cost of allowing foreign threats to fester without effective response.

None of this is to say that Bush II cannot be beaten, especially with the aid of unforeseen circumstances. However, from the standpoint of the moment, this combination of factors makes the task of Democrats in 2004 much more difficult. They cannot count on national security fading away, they cannot count on a passive domestic presidency, they cannot count on political tone-deafness in the White House. For this reason, they cannot rely on the model of 1992, which consists of neglecting national security, emphasizing only domestic policy, and nominating someone who tried to have it both ways on Iraq (in 1992 Clinton, in 2004 Kerry?). Will they try anyway? Wait and see.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.