All of a sudden, Republicans are worried about President Bush’s chances in the upcoming election. There are several reasons for the gathering gloom. Republicans had hoped to be able to run against Howard Dean, and will not. The economic recovery has not yet produced many jobs. Bush has been losing conservative support because of his record on spending and his immigration proposals. Add to the mix a backward-looking State of the Union address, an unimpressive presidential performance during a television interview, a ham-handed White House response to the controversy about the president’s National Guard service, and–above all–the polls showing John Kerry ahead of Bush, and you can see why Republicans are nervous.
As it happens, we think the worry is overdone. The Democrats have had the field largely to themselves for two months. Kerry has been winning primaries, and his first wins were dramatic surprises. It stands to reason that he would look strong now. Yet any objective assessment must conclude that he is electable chiefly in comparison with Howard Dean [now no longer in the running]. He remains a northeastern social liberal with a weak record on national security. And even in a primary as late in the process as Wisconsin, a sizable number of Democrats is rejecting him for John Edwards. The economic indicators, meanwhile, are favorable to Bush. The public does not blame Bush for the jobs that have been lost “on his watch.” It does want to see progress. By midyear it will, according to the forecasters. So the economy is likely to be a vote-winner for Bush. If so, it will be the first election since 1988 in which the business cycle has benefited Republicans.
It will also be the first election since 1988 in which national security has played a major role. It is no accident that no presidential candidate got a majority of the vote between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the war on terrorism. The country could not reach a political consensus during the interwar period. The Republicans still had free-market and moral conservatives on their side. Without national-security hawks in the coalition, however, these two groups were unable to yield a stable national majority.
The Democrats say that the president should not “exploit” the war on terrorism. He should not, that is, point out that it is a dangerous world and that the opposition has no serious plan for making it less so. The president is also being advised by liberals not to run as an opponent of gay marriage (which would be too divisive) and a supporter of individual accounts for Social Security (too risky). But all of these issues are legitimate ones; the president’s positions on them are largely sound; and they offer the chance to create a winning conservative coalition for this era. We hope that the current jitters motivate the president and his team to start making the case for a conservative second-term agenda. He is not guaranteed to win. But he’s still the guy to root for, and bet on.