Sizing up 2004

Posted: Aug 02, 2003 12:00 AM

 This week, on a radio show, the host asked whether I thought President Bush was headed for the same fate as his father in the 1992 election. While the question has been around for a while, I think it deserves a fresh answer in light of recent developments.
The comparisons are only natural. Both George Bushes lead successful wars against Iraq, and both enjoyed phenomenal approval ratings at the time. Bush 41 squandered his 90 percent approval rating even more dramatically than he acquired it and lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. Now that Bush 43 appears less than politically invincible for the first sustained period since the September 11 attacks, Democrats are salivating with anxious anticipation.

 The smart money is still easily on President Bush for 2004, mainly because a substantial majority of the electorate trusts him with our national security at a time when national security is paramount.

 Beyond his handling of the War on Terror and homeland security, and his tax policies and judicial nominations, he has disappointed conservatives on more than a handful of significant issues.

 Even apart from defense, he has been a big spender in general, and specifically on Medicare entitlements and federal education. Democrats would have been much worse, but we expect better from Republicans in that department.

 He applauded the Supreme Court's disgraceful affirmative action ruling, betrayed free trade principles and succumbed to political correctness on immigration policy, which is the one glaringly weak link in his conduct of the War on Terror. Those who otherwise support him scratch their heads at his apparent inconsistency here. You don't have to be a xenophobe to believe that lax immigration policies make us more vulnerable to terrorism.

 He has applied a different standard toward terrorism directed against Israel and advocates an independent Palestinian state, though land for peace has done nothing to curb the Palestinians' appetite for violence against Jews, and losing this strategic real estate would make Israel less secure and thus invite a full-scale invasion.

 But on domestic policy there's a major difference between George W. and his dad, who ran as Ronald Reagan's ideological successor. When Bush 41 reneged on his "no-new-taxes" pledge, he broke faith with Reagan orthodoxy, losing incalculable credibility with his base, which felt double-crossed.

 And while many have compared George W. to Ronald Reagan, he has never claimed to be an unabashed conservative -- compassionate, maybe, but not unabashed. He's been somewhat of a paradox from the beginning. To this day I have difficulty categorizing his views.

 On the one hand he seems to be instinctively conservative on certain issues, and has been a strong moral leader and extraordinarily decisive and effective Commander in Chief. On the other hand, he's shown a less-than-conservative strain in the many policy areas that I listed, plus others.

 More importantly, Bush 41's Gulf War was a finite proposition. Dubya's War on Terror is here to stay, throughout his second term if he's re-elected. This isn't his doing. Our enemies will remain persistent -- to many of them their cause is more important than life, and their goals, short of our abject surrender, cannot be achieved through negotiation or diplomacy.

 For good reasons, reinforced every day by almost every Democratic leader, American voters generally don't trust Democrats to handle our national security. This will be the overriding issue in 2004, and Democrats know it. That's why they're willing to do nearly anything to discredit Bush, even if it means discrediting themselves and America in the process.

 Which brings me to the final point. Democratic hopefuls have shown their true colors in the variety, viciousness, disingenuousness and shamelessness of their attacks on President Bush concerning Iraq and the War on Terror. Even while Bush appears slightly vulnerable over certain minor issues (the 16-word red herring) and seemingly major ones (our failure to find WMDs), the Democrats are consistently hurting themselves more than President Bush with their transparently partisan attacks.

 When the partisan dust settles, the voters just might make these gentlemen pay for their reckless, destructive and self-serving allegations, which could seriously undermine America's war and peacetime efforts in Iraq, the War on Terror and the morale of our troops. If Democrats are looking petty now, just wait until we do find evidence of WMDs. It won't be pretty for them.

 No Democratic aspirant has any credibility on these major issues, nor will Hillary if she decides to throw her hat in the ring. I say none of this with an air of cockiness -- things can change rapidly in politics -- but Democrats are a long shot for 2004.