'It's the war, stupid'

January 16, 2004

With Saddam in US hands and the economy on track, Dubya should win a second term, says Huw Richards

Unlike the only other father and son US presidents, John and John Quincy Adams, George W. Bush looks set to win a second term this autumn. With the Iowa caucuses next Tuesday and the New Hampshire primary election on Wednesday week, leading British experts have little doubt that Bush is on a roll.

The late 20th century undermined assumptions that incumbent presidents have an automatic advantage at elections - think Carter, Bush senior, Hoover and Taft - but as Jon Roper, reader in American studies at the University of Wales, Swansea, points out, all but Hoover were weakened by serious challenges from within their own party.

He says: "George Bush senior was given a serious scare in Iowa by Pat Buchanan, who did well enough after that to be able to demand a serious role in the convention. Buchanan made a hardline speech from the religious right that scared off a lot of other voters. George W. will face at the most token opposition, while the Democrats are going through a fierce fight for their nomination."

Events also appear to be going Bush's way. In 1992, Bill Clinton beat Bush senior by emphasising the economy. Twelve years on, most economic indicators look good, and, as Michael Foley, professor of American politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth points out, other issues are preoccupying the US public. "On the most recent Gallup poll, the top issue was terrorism and Iraq was third," Foley says.

The capture of Saddam Hussein undoubtedly strengthened Bush's hand on Iraq, with most polls now showing a clear majority in favour of his actions there.

And Bush's own political skills should not be discounted. There is no doubt that he is a much more accomplished electoral performer than his father.

Phil Davies, professor of American politics at De Montfort University, says: "He is extremely good at getting his points across effectively in soundbites that appeal to American voters."

John Owens, professor of American politics at Westminster University, argues that Bush was well set even before Saddam's capture and that the widespread British view of him as a moron is spectacularly wide of the mark.

"He isn't an intellectual, but he has what Americans call smarts," Owen says. "There's a story of a recent meeting in which he stopped an economist and said, 'I don't understand what you're saying.' That's quite valuable.

He's somebody who knows his limitations and weaknesses and when to take advice. The people around him know what they are doing, his style goes down well and he relates well to ordinary people."

Owens points to his legislative successes: "They worked very hard to get patients' rights legislation and important changes to Medicare through Congress. This not only makes him strong on traditionally Democrat issues, but the way in which conservative congressmen made concessions to give their president a record he could run on shows that the Republicans are working as a team."

Political journalists John Judis and Ruy Teixeira have argued in T he Emerging Democratic Majority that demographics favour the Democrats in the medium term. Foley is unconvinced. He argues that even if Judis and Teixeira are proved right, the political environment in 2004 is distinctly unpromising.

Both the 2000 presidential and 2002 congressional elections showed the nation to be evenly split, and party identification is also divided 50:50.

But Foley points out that this is bad news for the Democrats:

"Historically, the Democrats have had a lead in identification - the period late last year when the Republicans had a small edge was the first since the 1930s." Republicans control both houses of Congress and hold a majority of state governorships. The pattern of seats up for contest in November means they are likely to consolidate control of Congress.

Foley notes another problem: "Polls indicate that an unnamed Democrat would run neck and neck with Bush. As soon as you insert the name of any actual candidate, Bush opens up a lead."

At the moment, the likeliest candidate is the unexpected frontrunner, former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Dean has used the internet innovatively as a means both of campaigning and fundraising and, unlike equivocating rivals, has come out clearly against the war in Iraq. He has found a resonance among the committed Democrats who will vote in primaries.

Davies says: "His main problem may be expectation. If he does less well than expected in Iowa and New Hampshire, he could lose momentum."

If he does not, and then also does well on February 3 - "Mini-Super Tuesday" - when seven states have their primaries, Dean could be unstoppable.

Foley says: "The front-end loading of the primaries makes it possible for Dean to secure the nomination before much is known about him or he has really been tested."

Roper says: "It is not fatal to be a governor from a small state - Clinton was, but he had also established a national profile as president of the National Governors Association. The fear for the Democrats is that Dean will prove not to be another Clinton or Carter, but another George McGovern, who was beaten heavily by Nixon in 1972."

Although Dean appears to have read the core Democrat mood well, Foley says this could lead to him being "painted as a liberal. Polls show that only 20 per cent of voters call themselves liberals, against 40 per cent moderate and 40 per cent conservative." Dean has already come under ferocious assault from rival Democrats. Bush, who is also adept at playing the patriotic card, will be able to use the primaries to launch his national campaign while the Democrats fight over the nomination.

So what could derail Bush? Davies notes that polls show a large number of Americans believing that Bush governs for the rich rather than for the majority and that, in spite of his populist style, he has little comprehension of their lives. For these opinions to matter, however, the Democrats will need to find an issue to resonate as strongly as "the economy, stupid" did for Clinton in 1992.

"Events, dear boy, events", as that most un-American politician Harold Macmillan was wont to say, seem Bush's most dangerous opponent, with the impact of a fresh outrage on US soil hard to calculate, although things going badly wrong in Iraq might give fresh momentum to Dean. "A lot can happen in ten months," Davies says.

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