As of this week, at least, the Bush campaign is running on the success of the “war against terror”—in Iraq and Afghanistan and at home. This is an attempt to deflect attention from what’s happening with George W. Bush’s main base of support: corporate execs rewarding his policies on taxes, the environment, and other business issues with more and more campaign cash.
Whether the Democrats will be able to build a cohesive base (both parties have had to deal with dangerously shifting coalitions) to take advantage of Bush’s pandering toward the business class is another question. But it’s not impossible.
As of June, Bush had raised $35 million, with current estimates of the size of his war chest, according to The Washington Post, standing at $55 million. Helen Thomas, the veteran White House correspondent, speculated back in June that Bush wanted to raise $200 million, which would be a record. In 2000 Bush raised $191 million, compared with Gore’s $133 million.
Despite all that money, at least some political professionals think Bush can be beaten. “The mathematics is becoming more and more plausible every day,” Geoff Garin, of Peter Hart Research Associates, told the Voice. A Gallup poll last week showed Bush’s approval down to 52 percent. Pollsters found Bush leading a Democrat (not a particular one) by only four points, 47-43. “Bush still enjoys an advantage as commander in chief,” said Garin, “but the value of that advantage has declined substantially over the past few weeks as people come to see Iraq as less compelling a success. And because the national-security situation has diminished, Bush’s economic vulnerabilities weigh more heavily in the balance.”
A new Hart poll shows that by an 11-point margin people say they are more dissatisfied than satisfied with the direction of the country. “The votes are there,” said Garin, “and the ingredients in terms of public opinion and public attitudes are there. And the electoral votes are there: It only takes a switch of one state.”
Past Tents and Present Tents
Right-wing alliances, often important to the GOP during presidential campaigns, would appear to be shifting.
For the Bush camp, by far the most unsettling situation is the California recall election—whenever it eventually takes place. A win by Arnold Schwarzenegger would not necessarily be a win for the Republican right. The Terminator is a more or less liberal Republican—pro-gay, pro-choice, sympathetic to environmentalists. He has said the Clinton impeachment made him ashamed to be a Republican. The Bush administration is gangbusters on cutting taxes, but Schwarzenegger is noncommittal on this key GOP strategy. As an immigrant, he is scarcely opposed to immigration per se, as are many on the right who call either for a moratorium or severe racial profiling. In sum, at least on paper, Arnold represents everything the GOP right detests. And yet, many of the right-wing leaders—the same ones blathering on and on since Reagan about sticking to their “principles”—have lined up behind him. Pat Robertson is embracing Schwarzenegger—who did drugs and participated in orgies in the ’70s—as his kind of guy. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly all have fallen for Arnold. That may be fine for the California recall, but having a moderate Republican stir the blood is not necessarily good for the GOP right-wingers’ big vote next year.
Especially with another potential tear in the fabric of the GOP’s big tent—this one involving young males. In California, as The New York Times pointed out Sunday, polls are showing that young white men—a traditional base for the conservative Republican Party since Nixon—voted in greater numbers in 2000 than women and seem to be ready to embrace the Terminator’s moderate politics. This can only strain the fabric of the GOP’s tent, under which Bush the Younger has so skillfully accommodated the Christian right, libertarian economics, free trade, and traditional conservative Main Street greed. By embracing the right, Bush sought to rectify the mistakes of his father, who went down to defeat when he ignored it. Still, can the president who trashed the environment and condemned gay marriage do an about-face and embrace a dope-smoking orgy-goer who hasn’t gone born-again?
More Trouble on the Right
And forget California for a minute. Conservatives of all stripes are screeching at the out-of-control deficit and the skyrocketing costs of Iraq. Others—from David Keene of the American Conservative Union to Paul Weyrich, a founder of the New Right decades ago, and Lori Waters, D.C. director of Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-abortion, anti-feminist Eagle Forum, are lined up against Bush to fight the Patriot Act. Grover Norquist, a plugged-in Republican wheeler-dealer who represents or has represented Microsoft and the NRA, is also opposing Bush on the Patriot Act. These conservatives, led by former Georgia congressman and Clinton inquisitor Bob Barr, have formed a coalition with the ACLU to save their constitutional rights. Of course, these people are not so much worried about Ashcroft as they are about what might happen to them should Hillary Clinton become president.
Bush’s stronghold is the pro-military South, where his campaign stop at Fort Steward, Georgia, was greeted last week with a thunderous welcome from the Third Infantry. Little did the troops realize that the photo of rank upon file of soldiers saluting the commander in chief was a priceless campaign shot, right up there with Bush’s carefully staged carrier landing. For now, Bush’s campaign works splendidly in the South, which also has big numbers of right-wing Christians and young white men. The one exception is Florida, whose support, despite the presence of brother Jeb, Bush can’t take for granted. “As of right now, even the state’s strongest Democrat could not beat Bush in Florida,” Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research told the Voice last week. Bush is certainly not vulnerable in Florida on military matters, but the economy could be a problem there. “If you’re going to get Bush in the South,” he said, “it’s going to have to be an economic issue, much like Clinton in 1996.”
But the Democrats may have gotten a break last weekend, when Florida congressman Mark Foley, the GOP front-runner for the Senate (and a moderate compared with other GOP right-wingers), abruptly pulled out. That leaves it open for Bob Graham to quit his no-go presidential campaign and come back to win Florida for the Dems. Graham, as no other lawmaker, can run against Bush’s war policies because of his chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He has opposed the Iraq war and has yet to tell about the intelligence snafus. At the same time, Graham has a record as a conservative Democrat, being the single most important politician in the nation in bringing back the death penalty. It was during his governorship that Florida resurrected executions. When it comes to killing people, Graham makes Bush look like Gandhi.
As for the rest of the South, Coker said, the Dems could have a chance in states Clinton carried in both of his elections, and which just might become swing states: Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Of Tennessee, Coker noted, “Gore couldn’t carry it—and it’s his home state. . . . My opinion is that Gore lost the election in Tennessee instead of Florida.”
In any case, said Coker, “for the Democrats to be competitive in the South, they’ll probably need two things: They’ll need the economic recovery to sputter, and they’ll need a Southerner on the ticket.” Of the candidates now officially in the race, that would mean Graham or North Carolina’s John Edwards, and neither campaign has moved an inch to date. Coker didn’t put much stock in the chances of probable candidate Wesley Clark.
Weapons of Self-Destruction
Bush’s best chance for re-election probably has less to do with big-tent Republicanism than it does with the dwarf toss under way in the Democratic Party. Dean’s ahead in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which means someone will be dispatched to take him down ASAP. As in 1988, when Gore was dispatched to New York to waste Jesse Jackson (pictured then, as Dean is today, as a demagogic populist), the job falls to the tired nags in the stables of the Democratic Leadership Council. The idea is pretty simple: Joe Lieberman takes down Dean, thereby opening space for John Edwards to march in. Edwards is and has always been the DLC’s sleeper candidate, the man who can save the nation from the mad lefty freaks in the Northeast.
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John