What might have been
Analysis and Commentary
NEW YORK—An embattled President Bush returns to New York this week for the Republican National Convention in an effort to recapture the high approval he once had after September 11, 2001. But the president, hobbled by charges of being weak on terrorism, has a long way to climb.
With an approval rating of 34%--four points below that of his father at a comparable point in his presidency—Bush has to pull off a political miracle to avoid his father’s fate. He arrives in New York trailing Senator John F. Kerry by 12 points in a head-to-head matchup and by 15 points in a 3-way race between Bush, Kerry, and Senator John McCain who is running as an independent.
Bush’s political support has been eroding since May 2003 when he finally ordered redeployment of the troops stationed in and around the Persian Gulf in an effort to enforce U.N. resolutions against President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Bush's decision to follow international pressure and let inspections continue required the move as the temperature and costs continued to rise. The short-term burst of euphoria upon the avoidance of war has dwindled after a series of setbacks on the international front and the war on terrorism.
In late June, Hans Blix stepped down as chief weapons inspector, saying, “there’s nothing to find.” Although the inspections were authorized for another three months, they actually ceased about five weeks later. No known connection, but in mid-August 2003, the infamous Days of Crimson Death began as Hezbollah guerrillas began an unprecedented three-week suicide bombing campaign against Israel. In a bitter fight amongst the members of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. pressed for a formal condemnation of such tactics by the U.N. They were, however, forced to withdraw it as French representatives quietly informed the U.S. Ambassador that they would veto such a measure. Desperate for allies and to avoid public defeat, President Bush let the resolution die.
Thus weakened, the president was caught totally off guard by the Labor Day Massacre as terrorist groups simultaneously destroyed government buildings in Israel and set off a bomb at the Minnesota Twins-Chicago White Sox game in Chicago, IL. The blast killed 75 and wounded over 400 at the baseball game. In Israel, the unexpected attack in the most heavily guarded part of town sent shock waves through the country. The Sharon government fell three days later.
Although Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the U.S. blast, CIA analysts believed that the Syrian-backed Hezbollah had in fact instigated the attack, possibly at the behest of Saddam Hussein. CIA analysts presented a number of connections, primarily financial, between Iraq and Syria, but President Bush failed to act on the evidence. Already stung by the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, Bush was reluctant to act against any culprit without ironclad proof.
Polls showed strong support for a retaliatory strike against those behind the Labor Day Massacre, but Bush’s indecisiveness led him to look for a scapegoat instead of pursuing swift action. On November 8, 2003, he fired CIA Director George Tenet in an effort to shift blame to bad intelligence.
An impact was seen in the public perception of how Bush was handling the War on Terror. In April 2003, the public had approved of Bush’s decision not to go to war in Iraq by a margin of 63%-31% and his overall handling of the war on terrorism by similar margins. By the mid-October, however, those positions had reversed as 59% disapproved of Bush’s decision on Iraq with only 38% still approved. Bush’s position on the larger question was a complete turnaround: 67% said he was performing poorly while only 31% said he was doing a good job. The firing of Tenet caused a positive swing of about 10 points in the perception of the President, but that would last only until mid-December.
It was at the December 13 meeting of the U.N. that the Security Council voted to lift sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The U.S. had threatened to veto the resolution but ended up abstaining in an attempt to mollify allies who were balking about cooperating in the War on Terror. The measure passed 12-0 with three abstentions.
Over the next few months, a number of factors converged to create one of the most fascinating developments in recent politics. His poll numbers in free fall, especially after reports that showed the economy growing at a dismal 1.1% annual rate over the last six months of 2003, President Bush tried to revive his failed tax plan only to be stopped by moderate Senate Republicans led by Senator John McCain, noted for his fiscal conservatism. McCain had also developed into one of Bush’s harshest critics over his handling of the War on Terror, but it seemed that McCain had waited too late to challenge the President in the Republican primaries.
On the Democratic side, heated primaries continued between Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman. Both were promoting traditional Democratic economic solutions to help those most afflicted by the Bush Slowdown, and both were criticizing Bush for backing away from the showdown with Iraq in 2003.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Senator Kerry expressed disgust with the President. “We had everything ready to go, and the President just couldn’t pull the trigger. Well, I’ve fought for my country. I will do what it takes to defend the United States against our enemies, and I will support our allies instead of leaving them hung out to dry like this president did.” The weakened relations with allies particularly angered Kerry. “We had actually built this wonderful coalition with dozens of countries, risked the prestige of the United States upon working together with our allies, and then we backed down. It’s made us less effective in the War on Terror because our allies just can’t trust this president to do what he says he’ll do. That’s why we need a change in leadership: to rebuild international trust and restore our military’s faith in their civilian leadership. I happen to know how important that is,” Kerry remarked, a quiet reference to his service in Vietnam and his role in protesting the war upon his return.
The situation came to a head in the first two weeks of March. Kerry won big in primaries in the south and midwest as many conservative and moderate Democrats, including many veterans, seemed swayed by his tough talk and war hero status. Mounting problems in the Department of Defense also percolated upwards; military recruitments were down 23% from desired levels, and reenlistments were down 48% from desired levels. One soldier expressed his disgust this way: “Why re-up when the politicians are just going to yank our chain? We were right there, we were ready, and they got cold feet and ran. That don’t scare nobody in this neighborhood.” Declining morale led to a number of early retirements, but the bombshell came on March 19 when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned, citing “the inexplicable lack of will” that he termed “an infection” in the civilian side of the government.
Politically weakened yet again, President Bush made possibly the boldest and riskiest move available to him: he offered the job of Secretary of Defense to his rival, John McCain. Initially sympathetic, McCain began to cool on the idea and asked for a week to think it over. Reports indicate that McCain spent that week in consultation with pollsters, media consultants, and financiers such as George Soros who had been funding so-called 527 groups in order to defeat Bush.
On April 2, McCain called a stunning press conference. Not only did he decline the offer to join Bush’s Cabinet, he announced his intention to run for President as an independent. He announced the formation of a new political party, the Defenders party, and began making arrangements to create organizations in each state. Surprisingly, McCain was very successful in raising hard money, particularly from tech-savvy young people over the Internet. In an ironic twist, McCain had to rely on the good will of 527 groups to begin political advertising for him as he built his organization. McCain-Feingold, of course, had limited what people could give to parties, and McCain found himself frustrated as he ran into legal obstacles in building the Defenders party that he himself had written into law.
That set the stage for a frantic round of fundraising and reorganization over the next few months as Bush, McCain, and Kerry (who clinched his nomination in late March) scrambled for resources. With the party establishment behind him, Bush was still a formidable opponent, and his war chest swelled to $125 million, although well short of the $200 million he once had coveted. Kerry, too, struggled to raise funds as several of his wealthiest backers began splitting their cash between him and Senator McCain. (A minor scandal about coordination between McCain and Soros was settled when it was pointed out that consultation came prior to McCain's announcement as a candidate.) Polls taken in early June showed Kerry and Bush essentially tied and Kerry with a 6-point lead in the three-way matchups.
Two more significant events, of course, have set the stage for the President as he prepares his hail Mary Republican convention. On July 4, 2004, Iran shocked the world with a successful atomic weapons test. The Bush administration was caught completely off guard by the action. Preliminary reports indicate that certain CIA analysts had been studying the outlines of a shadowy network connecting Pakistan (fundamentally lawless since Musharraf’s assassination in January 2004), Libya, and Syria (which, it was speculated, had actually received nuclear technology from Iraq during the inspections regime and had sold it on the sly to Iran.) The scramble in leadership at CIA, however, prevented such reports from ever making it up the bureaucratic ladder to the President.
The other event, of course, is the multiple bombings that took place on the first night of the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. The Games were already sparsely attended both by spectators and by athletes (Israel, for the first time in its history, actually sent no athletes), and the waterside explosions during the Parade of Nations caused a massive panic. The torch-lighting ceremony was postponed until the following night as the athletes and spectators were hurriedly (forcibly in some cases) evacuated. The death toll from the blasts was estimated at 45 with another 58 killed in the stampeding during evacuation. Citing security concerns, the Games were limited to a mere week as countries departed quickly hoping for the safety of home. (China finished with the most medals.) The economic impact on the country of Greece, while still precisely unknown, is estimated in the hundreds of millions.
Finally, the activist group MoveOn.org has compiled a Bush Body Count which they claim represents those killed because of the way the President has prosecuted the War on Terror. According to the group’s website, the total should exceed 3,000 sometime during the Republican National Convention: a number higher than the casualty count on September 11, 2001.
Against this grim backdrop, can President Bush pull out another miracle and exceed expectations once again to keep his job? This week should begin to tell us the answer to that question.