The main message of the reelection strategy devised by Karl Rove, the President’s chief political adviser, is to present Bush as a strong and successful wartime leader. The war in Iraq was expected to work in Bush’s favor, and the Bush people planned to emphasize it more than any other issue. The adverse turn of events in Iraq has therefore been the greatest setback for Bush’s reelection effort, and the recent revelations of torture by American troops have caused a political crisis for the President. But well before these revelations, the horrors of the “postwar” period for American troops and the Iraqi people were seen by Bush and his team as a political misfortune. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction has also been a disaster. The public, according to the polls, finds Bush less and less convincing in his claims about Iraq. He continues to insist that the US occupation will end well—but he cannot talk away the news about Americans and Iraqis being killed every day and the horrifying pictures from Abu Ghraib prison.
Well before the pictures of sexual and other humiliations were published, a close ally of the White House told me, “The war was supposed to be a huge asset for the President; it was supposed to sweep everything else aside. The game plan was that we’d find the weapons of mass destruction and destroy the careers of those who opposed the war.” Karl Rove, this person said, “is concerned that the wea-pons haven’t been found. We were supposed to be crushing the other team on this, and we’re not. We took a big risk. We assumed that the reason Saddam threw the inspectors out and wouldn’t let them back in until the UN forced him to was that he had weapons of mass destruction. This outcome is a widespread concern among the President’s friends.”
The Bush reelection campaign officials use many of the same tactics the Bush administration has used to justify the war and to govern the country: they are determined to preempt, neutralize, undermine, and destroy the opposition. To counter the perception of failure in Iraq, the President asserts that weapons of mass destruction “could still be there.” Largely as a result of Bush’s rhetoric equating the war in Iraq with the war on terrorism, more than half of the public continues to believe—the lack of evidence notwithstanding—that Saddam Hussein had a direct part in the attacks of September 11, 2001.
With the occupation going badly and the numbers of dead and wounded rising, the President set out to undermine his opponents by challenging their patriotism. He is seeking to exploit the concerns Democrats expressed about the USA Patriot Act, passed by Congress in the emotional and fear-ridden weeks following September 11. Several Democrats and even conservatives pointed out that some provisions of the act trample civil liberties, for example allowing searches without warrants. But Bush said on April 18, “The Patriot Act defends our liberty.” He is now trying to make the same political use of the Patriot Act that he did of the Homeland Security bill during the election of 2002. He then attacked as unpatriotic the Democratic objections to the section of the bill denying civil service protection to Homeland Security Department workers. Republicans made much of such criticisms of the bill by the Vietnam War hero Max Cleland in defeating him for reelection to the Senate from Georgia. The President argues that anyone who opposes renewal of the parts of the Patriot Act that expire at the end of 2005 “isn’t concerned about our national security.”
John Kerry is one of the Democrats who voted for the act and later expressed misgivings about it. The Bush people use this record to accuse him of being a “flip-flopper”—perhaps their strongest issue in opposing him. For them the Patriot Act is one of those convenient black-and-white tests that they like to apply to opponents and to other countries. If you’re against it, you’re unpatriotic.
When Bush and his people cannot ignore or dismiss inconvenient facts, they seek to destroy their source—as they tried unsuccessfully to do in the case of the bipartisan commission examining the events of September 11. Since Bush’s other great political asset was to be his conduct of the “war on terror,” any suggestion that the administration had failed to deal effectively with al-Qaeda or with evidence of a terrorist threat would be especially dangerous. When Richard Clarke testified before the commission, arguing that the Bush administration didn’t take the al-Qaeda threat seriously enough, and didn’t do enough to deter the September 11 attacks, the President’s allies, including members of Congress, set out to destroy Clarke’s reputation and tried to undermine the commission’s inquiry by denouncing it as “partisan.” A politician who is close to the administration told me that the White House officials think “everything has to be met with a sledgehammer.”
Even though Bush said he wanted to work with the commission and would welcome its proposals, the administration for months refused to cooperate with it, denying it documents and witnesses and trying to head off a move to give it the time needed to complete its work. In all these cases the administration had to back off. Polling indicated that the public largely backed Clarke. The administration’s dealings with the commission showed that it’s not always as politically deft as it’s said to be and that it can be badly out of touch with political reality. The President and his aides thought that they could succeed in refusing to allow Condoleezza Rice to testify, and then, when the inevitable objections grew louder, Bush’s strategists predicted that the criticism would soon blow over. It took the administration a surprisingly long time to recognize the obvious—that Rice had to testify under oath.
The Bush reelection campaign is strictly hierarchical and highly disciplined. To some extent, this reflects a difference between Democrats and Republicans, but it mostly reflects the unquestioned control that Karl Rove has over the campaign. Kenneth Mehlman, the Bush campaign manager who heads the “Bush-Cheney04” reelection committee, was Rove’s deputy in the White House. Edward Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, is entirely loyal to Rove. The only important figure in Bush’s campaign who doesn’t answer to Rove is Karen Hughes, who, though she left her White House job to return to Texas, has been advising Bush and will shortly join the campaign. Hughes and Rove are said to have conflicting views on some matters, Hughes believing that Rove caters too much to the far right and that in doing so he has given Bush too parochial an image. Hughes is understood to have pushed Bush to present himself during the 2000 election as a “compassionate conservative” and to put more emphasis on domestic programs, such as the prescription drug bill and the “No Child Left Behind” education act.
The first step Rove and Bush took to assure Bush’s reelection was to raise an unprecedented amount of money: at least $187 million by the beginning of May (Kerry had by then raised at least $106 million). Then, virtually unnoticed, Rove sought to make sure that no third-party candidate on the right ran for president. While few people would have considered this a possibility, Rove took no chances. Since many Republicans have been unhappy about Bush’s immigration policy and his running up a huge deficit, a third-party candidacy didn’t seem out of the question. But Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and a close ally of the Bush White House, told me that “Bush didn’t leave enough breathing space to the right of him to allow that to happen, whereas the Democrats left room for a Nader. If you ask how the campaigns are doing, the first advantage the Republicans chalked up was that Pat Buchanan didn’t run and Ralph Nader is running.” To keep Buchanan out of the race, Bush put off announcing his proposals for immigration reform, anathema to Buchanan, until late in his first term of office, leaving Buchanan little time to organize a campaign opposing them even if he did want to run.
Bush’s presidency has been a continuous attempt to keep the different constituencies that support him happy. Other presidents have sought to do the same thing, but not with the same assiduousness. Three tax cuts have helped his richest backers as well as small businesses, which make up one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. A fourth cut planned for this year will extend previously enacted tax cuts, such as the abolition of the estate tax and the marriage penalty, and will also propose a new tax-deductible savings program, similar to an IRA, and a retirement savings account. Both new programs would allow larger contributions than an IRA would provide and would be available to everyone. These proposals, if enacted, would realize Norquist’s well-publicized goal, never explicitly endorsed by Bush, of a tax cut every year. And if the new tax-cut proposals aren’t passed by Congress this year, Norquist hopes to make them part of the election debates. Rove, for his part, has gone to great lengths to cultivate Norquist, consulting him on the President’s proposals and reelection strategy, and encouraging Norquist in his efforts to organize anti-tax groups in key electoral states.
Bush has been particularly concerned to keep the support of the Christian right, for example by giving unequivocal support to Ariel Sharon’s proposal for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip while holding on to other settlements when Sharon visited the White House (although because of the backlash in Arab states, Bush later softened his position). He frequently mentions his reliance on religion. Responding to the demands of the Christian right, the administration has attacked the international sex trade by raising the issue in the UN and other agencies, and it strongly supported the ban on “partial birth abortion,” which Bush signed into law. The President has also spoken favorably about a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, although as yet he hasn’t actually requested one. He has appealed to anti-abortion groups by nominating “pro-life” judges and supporting the bill making the murder of a pregnant woman also the murder of the fetus (the “Laci Peterson” act, which has been signed into law).
In order to please the “property rights” lobby, particularly in the West, Bush has expanded the private use of public lands for mining and logging. He has paid respectful attention to the home schooling movement by meeting with its advocates and endorsing their cause. Bush is believed to be more popular among Hispanics this time than in 2000, in part because of his limited program to broaden immigration rights, allowing undocumented workers to stay in the United States for three years. After that, they would have to apply for a green card if they want to remain. He has also appointed Hispanic-Americans to federal positions and to the courts. But efforts to cultivate Arab-Americans haven’t paid off, because of the war, the Patriot Act, and Bush’s embrace of Sharon.