mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Why Bush Should Lose

At the height of his power, Joseph McCarthy appeared to be invincible.
Beginning in 1950, the senator from Wisconsin made a name for himself
by waving around documents supposedly listing hundreds of communists
employed by the U.S. government.

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For the next four years, no one in official Washington dared stand up
to McCarthy for fear of being called communist. But in 1954, drunk
with power, McCarthy went too far: He attacked the U.S. Army. The
Washington establishment soon turned against him as an unsteady
extremist, and within months, the Senate had censured him, ending his
career.
Fifty years later, George W. Bush is about to suffer a similar fate.

Bush, too, looked invincible after the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in
Afghanistan. With help from his advisers, Bush, too, intimidated
critics into silence by challenging their patriotism. And he, too,
eventually over-reached, insisting on a war in Iraq that has now blown
up in his face.
Think back to January: Nearly everyone expected him to be re-elected,
even people who opposed him. After all, Saddam Hussein had just been
captured and Iraq seemed under control.

But the eruption of U.S. casualties that followed in April, plus the
weakening of the U.S. economy, changed all that. By mid-July,
Americans were evenly split on whether Bush would win.
Worse for him, a Time-CNN poll found that only 43 percent of likely
voters wanted him to win a second term.

No U.S. president in the last 50 years who suffered such low approval
ratings so close to election day has recovered to win a second term.
Of course, Bush may prove an exception. Polls now show him running
close to Democrat John Kerry in a head-to-head contest, and the
Republican convention this week may give the president a boost.
But the loss of Bush’s previous aura of invincibility is ominous news
for his campaign in two ways.

First, it emboldens opponents both inside and outside the Kerry
campaign to greater confidence and efforts. (Would Bruce Springsteen
be playing rally-the-vote concerts for Kerry in October if he looked
like a loser?)

Second, like a game-tying grand slam in the seventh inning, Bush’s
sinking poll numbers alert the public that this game isn’t over after
all, and they should pay attention and get involved.

Together, these two factors could lead to greater turnout than
expected among anti-Bush voters on Nov. 2. Unions, civil rights groups
and environmental groups are mounting unprecedented get-out-the-vote
efforts, and the race’s tightness may help their recruiting.

Because the 50 percent of the electorate that usually doesn’t vote
tends to be less affluent, they presumably will favor Democrats over
Republicans. If their turnout increases by even a few percentage
points, Bush and the Republican ticket are in real trouble.
The fundamental problems facing Bush, however, go beyond whatever
voter mobilization feats his opponents may pull off.

No president can get elected without the support of the great American
middle. Bush’s failure to quiet Iraq and to deliver broad-based
prosperity has turned that middle increasingly against him in recent
months.
Bush is extremely unlikely to get more than 25 percent of the
undecided vote, predicts the respected nonpartisan analyst Charlie
Cook, who adds that the fundamental dynamics of the race favor a
challenger over an incumbent.

For all the talk of 50-50 polarization, the American electorate
actually divides into thirds.
The third on the right are Bush’s base, which he will never lose. The
third on the left he will never win. The final third identify
themselves as neither left nor right but independent, and they are the
de facto kingmakers of American politics.

As with most presidents’ re-election hopes, Bush’s fate rests with how
this middle third views two issues that historically have most shaped
voters’ decisions: war and the economy.
The middle third rallied behind Bush after Sept. 11, and they stayed
with him through the initial combat in Iraq. But as the war unraveled
this spring, many independents began to rethink their support of the
president who launched it.

Some 45 percent of independents now view Bush negatively. Iraq is much
of the reason why. Soaring casualties and Abu Ghraib photos turned the
war’s image at home from proud success into troubling failure.
Americans tend to punish presidents for failed wars. The number of
combat deaths in Iraq, which is likely to exceed the psychologically
powerful level of 1,000 by November, is bad enough for Bush. Worse is
how the continuing violence feeds doubts that this war can ever be
won.

Analysis of past wars shows Americans will accept relatively high
casualty numbers if they believe a war is being won. But if they
conclude that the war cannot be won, even limited casualties become
unacceptable. This dynamic not only explains Bush’s loss of support
since April but also suggests his approval ratings may fall further if
casualties continue.

And casualties, alas, will continue. No amount of White House spin can
disguise the fact that 140,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq through
election day.
Insurgents will surely keep targeting them and the thousands of U.S.
private contractors in Iraq. The rising death toll will keep Iraq in
the news and persuade yet more Americans that Bush was wrong to invade
in the first place.

News coverage will be relatively skeptical because the center has also
turned against Bush inside Washington. Most Washington journalists
base their stories on what official sources say.
Thus the Washington press corps ends up reflecting the opinions
expressed by leading factions inside official Washington.

This tendency helped Bush after Sept. 11, when Democrats and
Republicans alike kept criticisms to themselves for the sake of
national unity. But over the last year, more and more Washington
insiders, including prominent Republicans, diplomats and military
officers, have spoken out against Bush’s foreign policy.
This official dissent in itself generates news stories, but it also
colors the tone of overall coverage. The same news outlets that
cheered Bush through the initial combat phase in Iraq are now running
stories highlighting the problems for the U.S. occupation.

Publicly embarrassed by how uncritically they transmitted the
administration’s now-discredited rationales for war, some of these
news outlets have been trying to make up for it, and they have lots of
official sources to draw on.
The result has been more critical news coverage, which in turn shapes
public opinion.

It’s a rule of thumb in politics: When in trouble, change the topic.
But while hot-button issues like gay marriage are welcomed by Bush’s
right-wing base, they are unlikely to distract voters in the middle
third who are anguished by the latest beheading in Iraq.
And the unsubstantiated attacks on Kerry’s war record only highlight
an issue — military service in Vietnam — where Bush is weak.

Nor is the economy likely to help Bush, given the anemic numbers for
jobs and growth being reported. Contrary to some Democrats’ fears,
even another terrorist attack might not save Bush, for many Americans
would ask why he had not better prepared the nation’s defenses over
the past three years.

Of course, it’s possible that Bush could, as in 2000, lose the popular
vote but still win the Electoral College. But the swing states he
needs to carry contain lots of centrist voters. His weak standing with
them makes this scenario doubtful, as even Republicans have warned.
Undecided voters in swing states are poised to break away from
President Bush and to John Kerry, concluded a recent survey by the
Republican polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, which
would hand Kerry a lion’s share of these states.

The election, in short, is Kerry’s to lose. No one should put that
outcome past the cautious Democrat, but this election is not primarily
about Kerry.

One last lesson from U.S. presidential history: When an incumbent runs
for re-election, the vote is more a referendum on him than a judgment
on his challenger. Do voters want to give him another four years or
not?
Bush is, in effect, running against himself on Nov. 2. And he is
running against history, for he is on the wrong side of the two issues
that have always mattered most in past elections — war and the
economy.

Some commentators have suggested that such historical patterns are
irrelevant in the post-Sept. 11 era. In a dangerous world, an
apprehensive public will surely stand by a leader who stands tough
against terrorism.
This argument may appeal to Bush’s right-wing base, but
non-ideological voters in the middle third are pragmatists who make
decisions based on results. The results Bush has delivered on the
economy and in Iraq have not been good.

As with Joe McCarthy, the dawn was slow in coming. But over the past
eight months, the American middle has at last woken up to what a
seemingly invincible leader has been doing to their country. And
George W. Bush is going down.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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