By Dick Morris
April 30, 2003
As George Santayana put it "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." He might have included an injunction to remember the past accurately.
There is so much mythology surrounding the dramatic fall of Bush I from dizzying heights of popularity after the Gulf War to defeat less than two years later that the essential and real risk Bush II runs of repetition may be obscured and his campaign team could draw the wrong lessons from a misguided view of history.
George H. W. Bush did not lose because of "the economy, stupid." A good economy might not have saved him and a bad one need not have doomed him. The economy provided the coup de grace. But he was laid low and rendered vulnerable by four other factors:
1. Bush I faced an opponent who took away his best issues
Bill Clinton supported the death penalty, pledged an end to "welfare as we know it," and promised a tax cut for the middle class. So Bush could not use crime, welfare, or taxes as issues, the three staples of the GOP.
Can a Democrat take away Bush II's issues as effectively in 2004? It depends on which Democrat. If it's Lieberman, perhaps he can. Voters may come to believe that the Jewish Senator from Connecticut will be as fierce against terror as the president has been. But, if the opponent is Edwards or Gephardt who have been lukewarm on the war, or Dean or Kerry, who have been largely opposed, Bush will certainly have terrorism as his core issue.
2. Bush I screwed up his signature issue by raising taxes
Having been elected on a pledge of "read my lips - no new taxes," Bush Sr. did, indeed, raise taxes. Having broken his core promise, he could make no others and be believed.
Unlike his father, Bush has certainly kept faith with the voters on his signature issues of taxes and education. But have his tax cuts gone so far as to extinguish the potency of the issue? The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of April 24th would suggest that they have. Asked which tax cut proposal they would prefer, only 18% of voters backed the president's proposed $726 billion reduction while 16% supported only a $550 billion cut. 45% wanted a smaller tax cut or none at all. Tax cuts are not going to get anyone re-elected in 2004.
3. The Gulf War War lost it's relevance
Once Bush Sr. left Saddam in power, the war disappeared as an issue. It was nowhere to be found in the '92 campaign.
Will the war on terror still captivate the nation's attention eighteen months from now? Oddly, Bush Jr.'s successes, not his failures,that may haunt him. If he succeeds in dealing with North Korea and prevents attacks at home, the political potency of the terrorism issue may evaporate before November, '04.
4. Bush Sr. had no domestic policy issue with which to control events.
Since Bush I had no domestic policy agenda beyond fighting the recession and cutting the deficit, he lost control over the political dialogue. Here, Bush II faces much the same problem. He lacks a domestic policy issue. If terror fades - either because of Bush's success or because Lieberman wins the Democratic nomination - he's got no backup strategy. Tax cuts aren't the answer; nor is partial birth abortion or energy production or lawsuit limitation. Bush needs a hot button domestic issue with which to dominate the debate of 2004. I think that a crackdown on immigration from terrorist nations and drug testing for students in schools may offer the best choices. But unless Bush can come up with a domestic issue that controls the agenda, he may repeat the history of his father.
Will Bush win? Probably yes,
but it's not in the bag.