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.
As well as cultivating groups of constituents, the Bush campaign plans an unprecedented door-to-door campaign to get out the vote. The Republicans felt that in 2000 the Democrats were more effective in getting out the vote. They stepped up their efforts in 2002 and succeeded in picking up two Senate seats, and they now plan their most ambitious canvassing so far. In previous elections, the Republicans relied on some of the most loyal groups among their supporters—the NRA and the Christian Coalition, among others—to encourage people to vote. But according to Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition and later a high official in Bush’s campaigns, “both the data and the anecdotal evidence told us we were getting out-hustled.” Reed is now in charge of organizing the South for Bush.
Reed and others insist that they will be more sophisticated than ever this time. Reed says, “Politics is increasingly focused on grass roots and the ground game,” by which he means getting supporters to the polling places. This, he says, is “the biggest change since the advent of television.” An important reason for the emphasis on the “ground game” is that the electorate is almost evenly divided, with only an estimated 8 to 10 percent of the voters thought to be undecided. Though huge sums will continue to be spent on TV ads, these are now considered relatively less useful than before, since, according to practically every survey, so much of the audience has already made up its mind. The Bush campaign is using the Internet not only to urge people to vote but also to organize block parties in support of the President.
The Bush campaign strategists are also concentrating on ways to reach the very large groups whose members can generally be counted on to support the President. Businesses of all sorts will be asked to encourage their white-collar workers, and also their shareholders, to vote—on the theory that at least 70 percent of them will vote Republican. The same goes for the Mormon and white Evangelical churches. American businessmen overseas will be able to register and receive absentee ballots by computer.
Ed Gillespie told me recently that because only between 8 and 10 percent of voters are uncommitted, it would be wrong to say that the parties are facing either a “base election” in which mobilizing more supporters is crucial, or a “swing election,” in which politicians prefer to concentrate on the small numbers who might vote either way. “You’ve got,” he said, “to get your base out [to vote] and you also have to appeal to those in the middle.” The swing voters, he said, are believed more likely to be married than single, in particular married women with children, younger voters, and the much-mentioned “NASCAR dads,” i.e., blue-collar or low-paid white-collar workers who are concerned about out-sourcing, losing health benefits, and losing their jobs. Though “NASCAR dads” are believed to represent only 2 percent of voters, they are this election’s equivalent of “soccer moms.”
At the Bush reelection headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, I recently talked to Ken Mehlman, the head of the reelection committee, and Matthew Dowd, who is in charge of media and polling for the reelection campaign. Dowd told me that since each party was “sitting on 45 percent of the vote,” decisions “made in the campaign, and events, have a bigger impact.” Dowd says that the issues of Iraq and the prosperity of the economy will “fill the space”—i.e., that they, and the effects of September 11, will be far more important to voters than, say, positions on abortion or on the environment. (An estimated 40 percent of the job losses in 2001 were caused by the economic shock of the September 11 attacks.) One Bush adviser says, “If the economy turns worse, he’s dead.”
Mehlman and Dowd put forward the novel theory that the voters see the issues of war and the economy as involving “values” on which they have an either/or choice. When it comes to economics, Mehlman says, the division will be between people who believe that individuals should be self-reliant and those who believe the government should provide a safety net. The question, he said, is whether “you think the government should keep the money or send it home.” On Iraq, he says, people will vote on how strongly they believe in, or distrust, the UN. When I pointed out that Bush says he plans to turn over the government of Iraq to the UN (thus seeming to co-opt Kerry’s position), Mehlman replied that while people on the center-right don’t object to having the UN involved, Democrats see the UN as “an end in itself.”
It was clear from my conversations with Gillespie and the other officials in charge of Bush’s campaign that they are counting on Kerry to help them win. They think that Kerry’s liberal record will work against him, and that his occasional tendency to “flip-flop” will continue. When Kerry, referring to a special appropriation for troops in Iraq, said early this year, “I actually did vote against the $87 billion before I voted for it,” delighted Bush campaign officials spliced a tape showing Kerry saying this onto an ad they’d already been using to misleadingly suggest that Kerry had cast a series of votes against various weapons needed by the troops in Iraq. (They were all in one bill which Kerry opposed because he believed it contained too much “pork.”) “Occasionally a moment crystallizes the campaign,” Terry Holt, the communications director of the Bush campaign, told me, referring to Kerry’s statement about his vote. In a speech in Pennsylvania in April, Bush said of Kerry, “If he could find a third side to an issue, I’m confident he’d take it.”
The Republicans are attacking Kerry’s liberal record, claiming, for example, that he has, according to Bush, “voted over 350 times for higher taxes,” a figure for which his campaign has presented no convincing evidence. Ed Gillespie says that the Democrats’ frenetic schedule of primaries each week in January and February enabled Kerry to be chosen without his record being closely examined. “So we are going to do the vetting,” he said with evident satisfaction.
Bush’s arrogant and radical approach to governing has estranged some parts of his constituency. The administration’s often contemptuous attitude toward members of Congress has angered a considerable number of Republicans on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate. In some cases, the administration has simply refused to send high officials to testify before congressional committees—particularly the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the weeks leading up to the Iraq war, General Jay Garner, the first appointed proconsul in Iraq, was said to be too busy to appear before Congress. When the administration refused to assign leading officials to testify at hearings about the turnover of authority to Iraqis on June 30, Richard Lugar, the much-respected chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that “the administration must recognize that its domestic credibility on Iraq will have a great impact on its efforts to succeed. On some occasions during the past year and a half, the administration has failed to communicate its Iraq plans and cost estimates to Congress and to the American people.”
The administration hoped to avoid requesting more funds for the military before the November elections and asserted that no more funds were needed. This caused incredulity among many members of Congress. But the need for money, caused largely by the reversals in Iraq, became so great that, on May 6, the White House asked Congress for an additional $25 billion for the military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such evasive tactics have become familiar. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service recently said that the Bush administration apparently violated the law when it ordered the chief Medicare actuary to withhold from Congress the fact that the new Medicare law could cost far more than the White House had said it would.
Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and the next most senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, was more outspoken than Lugar about the administration’s disdain for the legislative branch. Hagel made the most telling point when he said to Lou Dobbs, “I was not elected, nor any of my colleagues, to serve under a president. We serve with a president. We do have a constitutional responsibility to probe, to question, to be part of setting policy.”
Hagel told me later, “I have been baffled over the last two years as this administration has prepared to take a nation to war, why they did not reach out to the Congress, enlist our engagement, our support.” Hagel’s anger and frustration were clear. For the administration to treat Lugar and his counterpart, Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, with contempt, he said, was extremely shortsighted. Another Republican senator said to me, “This bunch has an arrogance that I’ve never seen before, even before September 11.”
By early May, Republicans on Capitol Hill felt a deep unease, if not an incipient sense of panic, over the administration’s failures in Iraq. Then came the revelations of torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqis by US soldiers and civilian contractors working for US intelligence. Republican senators now express despair over the admin-istration’s failures in Iraq and fear that the President’s problems could sink the fortunes of Republican senators. “We talk about it in small cabals of two or three of us at a time,” a Republican senator told me. During the congressional hearings on the torture revelations, several legislators—including Republicans—said they were outraged over the failure of the Defense Department to inform Congress.
Even House Republicans, who are usually obsequious in their support of Bush, are becoming alarmed about the disasters in Iraq and worried about the war’s effects on their fortunes. This worry is particularly acute on the part of members who are old enough to remember the Vietnam War. Some seats that should be safe for the Republicans might in fact be at risk, for example South Dakota’s one congressional seat and two in New York, which are held by moderates who have announced they will retire. Now Republicans are also less certain that they can retain control of the Senate. Some told me they were appalled when, during the crisis over Fallujah at the end of April, the President chose to tour Ohio, which Republicans used to be able to take for granted, but is now considered up for grabs, partly because employment there has declined. Bush took the bus trip through the state as if nothing consequential was going on in the world.
Some legislators admit publicly that the President has been able to dominate both houses of Congress because of their own complicity and eagerness to please. “September 11 was such a jolting, defining event,” says one Republican senator, “that most of us say ‘He’s our guy,’ and we rally around.” So Democrats as well as Republicans vote for bills and resolutions about which a good many have grave doubts—such as the war resolution and the Patriot Act. They simply looked away when the administration diverted to Iraq hundreds of millions of dollars that had been allotted to Afghanistan.
Still, self-preservation is the most powerful force in politics. A senator once said to me, “In politics, when it’s thee or me, it’s thee who has to go.” Few on Capitol Hill imagined the war in Iraq would be going as badly as it is; and with the disgrace of Americans over the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the embarrassment and fears of defeat among Republicans in Congress have become more open than ever. Similarly, many traditional conservatives are upset by the President’s presiding over a vast budget deficit, which poses a serious threat to the economy, by his reckless foreign policy, and by his more liberal immigration policy toward Mexico. Some people with such views speak of writing in Buchanan’s name or of not voting, or even of voting for Kerry. They’re not numerous enough to threaten Bush’s reelection, but their disaffection suggests an erosion of support from within his own ranks.
Stephen Moore, head of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax organization, recently backed a highly conservative candidate in a Republican primary fight in Pennsylvania against the relatively moderate Senator Arlen Specter. Despite strong support from the President, Specter won by only 51 percent to 49 percent. Moore says that “a lot of people like myself think Bush doesn’t really care about limited government. On the budget and on fighting big spending, Bush is worse than Clinton.” Now the true conservatives, he said, have “a new beef”—Bush’s support of Specter. “If you’re a conservative you don’t go out and throw your arms around Arlen Specter,” Moore told me. He claims that Bush and Rove have heard of discontent among people like himself on the right, and that Bush is trying to appease them, for example in an attack on “big spending” in the pork barrel highway bill passed by the House in late March. But Moore’s group complains that Bush hasn’t vetoed any major spending bill. Perhaps for this reason, Bush threatened in April to veto the highway bill if the total amount was not reduced.
Two prominent Washington Republicans who have been very close to the White House complained to me. “Can’t we be done with the Bushes?” one of them asked in despair. Referring to the leading administration officials, he said, “There’s not a single new face since 2000.” While this isn’t entirely accurate, the complaint is telling. He also was appalled by the penchant for secrecy in the White House and the pressures to conform to the President’s line. “You have to prove your loyalty time and again to these people to even get in the door.” When I asked the other prominent Republican about the Bush campaign, he replied that the campaign was being run very well by Rove and his team:
The problem is the Bush administration screwing up. It seems to be one mistake after another. The lack of cooperation with the Hill is worse than noncooperation. It’s “we can act unilaterally—whether its Congress or countries.”
Despite Bush’s difficulties, however, and the rising proportion of voters who think he’s handling the war badly, he’s been holding his own against Kerry in the polls—largely because of Kerry’s limping campaign thus far. That this is still the case even after the worst weeks for the US in “postwar” Iraq, and after the revelations of torture, the Bush people believe, is a reflection of their success at “driving up Kerry’s negatives.”
Still, the pollster John Zogby says that he believes that the election is “Kerry’s to lose.” In early May, Zogby said,
The two candidates are frozen right now in the mid-to-high forties, with very few undecideds. That’s not good for an incumbent, who obviously is better known than the challenger. Moreover, historically, undecideds have tended to break against the incumbent. And a recent survey we did found that on the issues the voters care most about—the economy and the war in Iraq—Kerry led Bush by double-digit margins. So if Kerry can sharpen his focus on the economy and the war and develop clear themes he will win this election.
Moreover, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, only 33 percent of voters think the country is headed in the right direction, while 50 percent think it’s on the wrong track. This “right-track, wrong-track” measurement is the one that political professionals watch most closely. Obviously, 33 percent is a very bad rating for an incumbent president. The same survey found that six respondents out of ten thought that events in Iraq had gone out of American control. And even though the economy has been improving, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that six of ten voters believe that it is headed for a decline, which produces anxiety about their jobs and incomes. So thus far the the President’s bragging about an increase in jobs has had little political effect. Kerry does indeed have an opportunity.
Some influential Republicans are openly saying they are worried. Grover Norquist says, “The problem for people who want Bush to win is that there’s a total asymmetry between Democrats and Republicans in how much they’re energized about the Presidential race.” He argues that Republicans are as united as the Democrats, but not as excited. Norquist believes that the Republicans will hold the House and the Senate:
If after the election Kerry is president but the Republicans control the House and Senate we can stop him from getting anybody on the Supreme Court, we won’t let him raise taxes. No part of the Republican coalition would be damaged or destroyed by a Kerry victory. But with another four years of Bush, labor unions will decline further. We’ll get tort reform which will cost the trial lawyers millions and millions. We’ll be reducing government employment, which will hurt the public employees unions. There’s no opportunity for a united Democratic government [i.e., control of all three branches of government]. There is an opportunity for a united Republican government. So the Democrats are playing for higher stakes than we are, and this is very dangerous for Republicans.
Norquist’s list of the consequences of a Bush reelection is probably too brief. Bush has told people that he wants a “mandate” in this election to carry out his deepest wishes. If he receives one, or believes that he has received one, it is altogether likely that the environment will be further damaged, civil liberties will be further threatened, the Supreme Court will likely be set in a radically conservative direction for many years to come, and there will be a greater effort to privatize or cut social programs. The President is likely to feel that he has an even freer hand in foreign policy and in the use of military power, and less need to be accountable to Congress. For these reasons—and probably some that we can’t yet imagine—this is the most consequential election in decades.
—May 12, 2004