How Bushes Get Beaten

Only a short time ago the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, whoever that might be, seemed to face two possibilities: losing to George W. Bush by a respectable margin or being wiped out in a colossal landslide. Such dismal prospects, if they had persisted into next year, would have hampered Democratic fund raising and put the entire 2004 ticket at risk of being overwhelmed by a spiral of despondency and self-fulfilling expectations of defeat.

But the picture looks different now that corporate scandals and panicky markets have reframed the national conversation and put Republicans on the defensive. The new political climate has boosted Democrats' morale going into the midterm elections, made a victory in 2004 entirely plausible and helped to clarify what Democratic primary voters may be looking for in a presidential nominee.

Although history never repeats itself, the emerging framework of politics bears some resemblance to the situation that developed before the 1992 election. Like his father, the younger Bush has enjoyed an outpouring of public support after successfully meeting a challenge to national security. But he suffers from at least four of the same areas of vulnerability that Bill Clinton showed how to exploit, at Bush Senior's expense, a decade ago: the economy, the federal deficit, health care and the environment.

To be sure, no one can foretell economic conditions two years from now, but the overall record of Bush's term -- measured by unemployment and economic growth rates -- seems likely to fall well below that of the Clinton years. Even without a double-dip recession, the business scandals have undercut public confidence in unfettered markets and laissez-faire nostrums; the devastating impact of the stock market's decline on retirement savings, for instance, has effectively stopped talk of privatizing Social Security.

Clinton was able to beat Bush Senior not only by making the economy the central issue, but by conveying a more sympathetic understanding of voters' everyday worries. The younger Bush seems less out of touch than his father, but he suffers from the same basic problem. Locked in fiscally and ideologically, identified with business interests, he will find it hard to respond credibly to prolonged economic sluggishness, much less a crisis.

This year's deficit, recently projected to run $165 billion, reopens a second vulnerability: financial mismanagement of the government. As Ross Perot pummeled the elder Bush on the deficit, so the Democrats this year -- and probably in 2004 -- should be able to hammer away at the same theme, emphasizing the surpluses the president squandered and the parallels between the false promises and deceptive accounting of his tax cut and analogous practices in the private sector.

Health care and the environment are not only powerful issues for particular constituencies, they also serve as metaphors for the larger themes of Bush's solicitous protection of business and his indifference to wider public concerns. As in the early 1990s, health care has entered an inflationary cycle that threatens the affordability of services and drugs for many who previously felt protected. But given the fiscal straightjacket he designed for himself, this Bush will be no more capable than his father of responding to the problem. Similarly, the links between the Bushes and the energy industry, and the family's ideological hostility to regulation, make the son, like the father, vulnerable on the environment.

Of course, the 1992 analogy is useful only up to a point. Unlike the Gulf War, the war on terrorism is not over and has no clear terminus; compared to his father, the younger Bush has enjoyed higher approval ratings for a longer time, and he can still invade Iraq and re-establish security as the overarching framework of national debate. Moreover, he and Karl Rove take Reagan rather than George I as their political model, and they have shown flexibility on such issues as protecting the steel industry to achieve focused political gains. The Democrats, for their part, have no obvious choice for a candidate to oppose the president, though that was also the case in 1990.

Despite that vacuum, the corporate scandals and shaky economy have already changed the dynamics of electoral politics. As September 11 gave Bush a direction for his initially floundering presidency, so the scandals give direction to the long-floundering opposition. Whether or not new disclosures about Harken and Halliburton further implicate Bush and Cheney personally in the insider trading and misleading accounting that are at the heart of the investor confidence crisis, the Republicans are unmistakably the party of corporate interests at a moment when faith in business has plummeted.

Voters -- particularly the Democratic primary voters who will pick the party's next presidential nominee -- are likely to look for a candidate who can clearly articulate a coherent alternative philosophy to the orthodox conservative worship of free-market idols. Democrats do not need to resuscitate a simple-minded populism. They need to recall a tradition that insists, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has put it, that business is powerful enough without controlling the government too, and that markets obedient only to self-interest cannot ensure fairness or protect a society's long-term needs. No one can yet say who the Democrats' candidate will be in 2004, but it is beginning to be clear what that candidacy should be about.

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