George W. Bush had a pretty good month. Iraq is still a mess but the Bush administration, with the improbable help of the United Nations, managed to confound the critics and install a new government in Baghdad. The UN Security Council blessed the venture, 15 to 0. The U.S. economy generated decent job-growth numbers for the third consecutive month. And Ronald Reagan's death projected a halo that Bush appropriated (for a week, anyway).
All of these gains, of course, are fragile. The new Iraqi government is shaky. U.S. jobs may be growing but real wages are not. The most politically visible economic indicator is the price of gas at the pump. And the inevitable comparisons with the Gipper haven't necessarily been kind to Bush.
Still, despite the president's low approval ratings, there is a nontrivial chance that Bush could pull out of his nosedive this summer. Iraq could remain tolerably stable until November. If the interim government doesn't collapse by election day, we will hear the administration demanding that, yes, it was messier than we anticipated, and no, we couldn't find weapons of mass destruction. But by God, we got Saddam Hussein out, the country is back in the hands of friendly Iraqis, our relations with allies are on the mend, and the gambit was, as Paul Wolfowitz argued in The Wall Street Journal on June 9, a triumph of U.S. leadership and nerve after all.
By the same token, the economy could remain on a mediocre but not disastrous path. The House of Saud will never have a better friend than the House of Bush. You can be sure that the Bushies are using all their leverage to get more oil flowing. Americans now imagine the price of gas stuck around $2.29 a gallon. Should that come down to, say, $1.89 by October, it will look like a successful energy policy. Alan Greenspan, who shamelessly gave Bush cover for all his tax cuts and the resulting fiscal calamity, has turned out to be enough of a loyal Republican toady that he will likely keep interest rates moderate until after November.
All of this is a reminder that while Bush is surely vulnerable, he will be no pushover. Which brings us to the matter of John Kerry. Senator Kerry has been eerily lackluster lately. While a lot of swing voters are prepared to vote against George W. Bush, John Kerry hasn't yet made the sale. There is rage against Bush in the land, but how many Kerry buttons and bumper stickers have you seen?
There are several interpretations of Kerry's disconcerting quiescence. None is a very persuasive excuse. First, we hear the oft-repeated saw that when your opponent is doing himself in, the best tactic is to stay out of the way. If that's what his handlers are advising, Kerry should overrule them. When the incumbent president is repeatedly exposed as a liar and an incompetent, that is the time to keep saying so.
Second, we hear that it's early; the voters aren't really paying attention. Wrong again. It may only be June, but the Bush machine is relentlessly defining Kerry for the voters. If Kerry doesn't do a better job of defining himself, the Republican's image of Kerry as an extreme Massachusetts liberal, flip-flopper, preppie stiff, Frenchie, etc. will jell in the mind of the electorate. We saw from Al Gore what happens when a challenger keeps trying to "reintroduce" himself after Labor Day.
Third, we hear that as the general election approaches, Kerry is naturally moving to the center. But a centrism built on narrowing differences with Bush will inspire nobody.
The fourth explanation is the most worrisome of all. It's that Kerry seems to get animated only after he has a near-death experience. It happened in Iowa, and it happened in his last Senate race. This problem is less tactical than characterological -- it seems to be part of Kerry's own DNA.
Playing come-from-behind in the last days of the race is risky because you are a prisoner of events. One thinks of the 1980 election, which seesawed back and forth until Ronald Reagan decisively pulled away only in the final week as Jimmy Carter got bogged down in bad economic news and the Iranian hostage crisis.
Count on Bush and company to manipulate events to the max. If Kerry needs a near-death experience to get energized, he should reflect on the fact that his near-death might be happening right now.