President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have succeeded beyond expectations in lining up China as a strong ally in forcing North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The New York Times reports that the Chinese are even threatening to ratchet back on their oil shipments to North Korea, which is totally dependent on Beijing for fuel.
But Bush is getting no credit for it and neither are the Republicans. All of the focus has been on the role that Rice and UN Ambassador John Bolton are playing in forcing North Korea back from membership of the nuclear club. President Bush needs to do much more to rivet popular attention on Korea, as opposed to Iraq.
No matter how Bush says that he is going to revise our Iraqi strategy, the war in and around Baghdad will always be a political loser for the Republican Party. But the president always has the power to change the subject. He must use that power to focus attention on a front that promises success as opposed to one that seems to offer only the prospect of more casualties.
There is increasing evidence that the Republican base is returning to the fold, just as Karl Rove, the president’s close adviser and electoral strategist, predicted that they would. The state-by-state polls reflect GOP gains in Tennessee, New Jersey, Montana, Missouri, Virginia and in the national generic ballot tests. Since the Democrats must win two of the Senate seats in Tennessee, New Jersey, and Missouri and they are trailing in all three, there is a new possibility that the Republicans could pull out a midterm win. In John Zogby’s generic ballot polling, the Democratic margin has collapsed from +9 two weeks ago to only +3 today. (Since America is not a democracy but chooses its House of Representatives in gerrymandered districts, a three-point Democratic win would not give the party control of the House, just as the popular vote win in 2000 failed to guarantee it the White House).
But, as Rove and Co. realize, almost every election features an endgame Democratic uptick as downscale voters, who normally pay no attention to politics, begin to focus on the election. Like non-baseball fans who only pay attention to the national pastime during the World Series, these downscale voters only enter the process in the end. Since downscale voters tend to vote Democrat, this usually gives the party an edge as the election approaches. It was this last-minute move that erased a Bush surge in 1992 and closed the Bush lead over Gore in 2000.
To guard against this Democratic close, Bush needs to distract the country from Iraq, and North Korea offers the best way to do so. Americans are justifiably scared by the prospect of a nuclear North Korea and Bush’s efforts to assemble a global coalition to press Pyongyang have shown that Rice has learned how to play the game and win. But the president needs to bring the issue to public attention and use it to save himself from two years of subpoenas and hearings by making the next two weeks about Korea.