THE 2004 presidential election may prove of major historical importance, perhaps an election for the ages. Pres. George W. Bush has launched his reelection bid amid a flurry of international and domestic initiatives intended to consolidate the Republican hold on all levels of government, smother his competition by preempting Democratic issues, and, ultimately, realign the American electorate and eliminate vestiges of Democratic rule. Seldom has a presidential election evoked such intense early discussion, much of it centered on one historical analogue. Rarely, too, has an incumbent been so focused on learning from the past. The question is: Can Bush avoid his father's fate?
Pres. George H.W. Bush's reelection defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992 proved that nothing in politics is certain. Flush with victory over Iraq in 1991, with his party trumpeting its role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and ending the Cold War, the elder Bush enjoyed spectacularly high approval ratings. Fighting the "wimp factor," maligning "this vision thing," while vaguely touting "a New World Order." Bush committed two fatal mistakes: appearing disinterested and disconnected from domestic concerns and miscalculating the splintering effects of H. Ross Perot's third-party candidacy. Clinton, admonished by advisor James Carville ("It's the economy, stupid"), campaigned relentlessly on national affairs and succeeded in reminding voters that Americans expect presidents to deliver more than military victories.
Now, 12 years later, Bush, transfixed by his father's failures, faces many of the same circumstances: another military victory over Iraq, high approval ratings, a stagnant economy, rising unemployment, huge Federal deficits, a healthcare system in disarray, cultural issues fanning rancorous elements among more conservative members in his party, and ratcheting partisan rhetoric. Yet, much else is different, and historical similarities before and after 1992 beckon attention.
Presidential election campaigns, once confined to nine or 10 months divided into the primary and general election seasons, have evolved into a perpetual process, commencing almost immediately after a presidential election and segmented into at least four distinct phases. The first phase of campaign 2004 concluded in the autumn of 2003 following congressional adjournment, the close of the Supreme Court session, and the President's African sojourn. By then, the issues for the upcoming election largely had been identified. Bush had established a record on which to stand for reelection. The Democratic challengers had declared themselves, prepared to move into the second stage, the primary season, to be followed by a respite (third stage) before the party conventions and the opening of the final, or general election, phase of the campaign.
Throughout the consolidation process, Bush, unlike his father at a similar point in 1991, forcefully asserted himself and successfully controlled the momentum and direction of national politics, with the clear intent of strengthening built-in advantages, holding the party base attracting moderates, preempting Democrats, and gaining the political center. Through legislative initiatives and diplomatic strategies, he sought to rally the faithful and assuage the moderates' concerns, while minimizing potential openings for Democratic opponents and blocking dissenting Republican defections. While intently focused on avoiding the Republican mistakes of 1992, Bush and his advisors clearly have their eyes on a larger political objective: nothing less than an electoral realignment and virtual one party control of government, further paving the way for the elimination of any remnants of 20th-century liberalism and its most offending domestic policy expressions in the Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson presidencies.
Seldom has incumbency been so robustly and effectively leveraged. The power of the presidency has magnified Bush's personality, campaign prowess, and political skills positively. …