Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2004/29 Teves, 5764
The perils of chasing election-day phantoms
John Kerry is the happiest man of
the week, Howard Dean the glummest,
and George W. Bush is the most
The president and his men were
dead certain sure they had the right
man in their cross hairs. But they
didn't, and now it's back to Karl Rove's
The senator from Massachusetts
may well turn out to be that right man,
but that's not dead certain sure, either.
Winning the New Hampshire primary
would be nice, but it's not everything,
despite the grasshoppers of press and
tube who hop about to crown the
winner in a new Pundit Primary once
every week. Sometimes more often
A lot of the smart money, most of
which was on Howard Dean only a week
ago, now goes down on Mr. Kerry.
Some of it stays on the governor, and
some of it, just to keep the bets
covered, is laid on Wesley Clark. The
prudent man will put down a modest
sum on a late-arriving Hillary, a long
shot but by no means a sucker bet. All
the Clintons need for the restoration is
a chaotic free-for-all, and you don't
have to be Shakespeare to write a
script for that.
The sucker bet, as it turns out, was
everything bet on Howard Dean before
Iowa. Since his opponent was to be the
former governor, who could be
effectively portrayed as Freddy Krueger
from the "Nightmare on Elm Street,"
enough to scare the pants off a
spinster schoolteacher, the president's
men thought he could safely ignore his
conservative base because his best
friends wouldn't have anywhere else to
go. Conservatives would reckon they
couldn't even indulge the luxury of
staying home on Election Day. The
president could chase voters elsewhere.
George Bush the elder succumbed
to similarly expensive wisdom in 1988,
when his wise men told him to tone
down who everyone thought he was,
raise taxes and go gentle into the
stormy night with Bill Clinton. The rest
is history. Nicked by Pat Buchanan in the primaries and
wounded by Ross Perot in the autumn, the 41st president
watched as his doomed attempt to win a deserved second
term dissolved in the heat of late September and October. He
told me a year later: "I got bad advice, and took it."
The gap between the red states and the blue states is
deeper now, and George W. won't have the help of a
third-party candidacy to drain disaffected Democrats. John
Kerry, his Frenchified demeanor and European haircut to the
contrary notwithstanding, would go into the general election
season with certain advantages Bill Clinton did not have.
The explosion of federal spending - the second Bush
administration has increased discretionary domestic spending
by more than 8 percent annually, considerably more than any
of his six most recent predecessors - infuriates many of his
conservative friends. Even Bill Clinton cut the number of
federal employees; George W. added 80,000 new bureaucrats
just last year. Every single state recorded an increase.
There are early signs that the Iowa result got the attention
of the White House. The president, in his State of the Union
address, did not even mention the scheme to send a man to
Mars, and just as well. The first measure of public support for
the scheme showed that 62 percent of Americans think it's a
bad idea. The president mentioned his amnesty scheme for
the millions of illegal aliens, which has upset his most fervent
friends with unexpected intensity, but only in passing.
The pessimists among the president's best friends see an
eerie similarity in the election-year prospects of father and
son. The elder Mr. Bush went into 1988 with sky-high
approval ratings, which collapsed with his pursuit of votes he
was never going to get. George W.'s approval rating sparkles
at 60 percent or so, enough to fuel a landslide if it holds up.
But that's a big "if," because he, too, is chasing phantoms at
the expense of turning out big numbers from his base.
Almost any reading of the senior-citizen constituency finds
that seniors are counting on Democrats, not Republicans, to
expand the drug-prescription program.
Hispanic voters see
the Republican resistance to amnesty and expanded
illegal-immigrant rights, notice that the president couldn't get
away from the subject fast enough in his State of the Union
address, and put it down to half-hearted pandering. The first
President Bush signed on to many of the Democratic favorite
things, too, environmental, civil rights and disabilities
initiatives, and all he got for his trouble was personal
Liberal voters treated him to Bronx cheers on
their way to the polls. Many of the voters who wanted to be
his friends felt snubbed and frost-bitten by what they
regarded as a cold shoulder. If history repeats itself, the
result this time will be tragedy, not farce.
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