Sabatos Crystal Ball

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics April 13th, 2004


The Crystal Ball is revealing its age with this headline, recalling a semi-forgettable 1960s-era film starring Spencer Tracy and Milton Berle. But no title better sums up the tumultuous foreign and domestic campaign world we face in 2004.

Every political analyst is torn, trying to decide whether Iraq or 9/11 or jobs or gas prices or something else will be the critical issue that will decide the election in November. Just when we think we have a handle on reality, the world turns again.

IRAQ: Bush’s Vietnam?

Things couldn’t be grimmer in the U.S.-occupied country that is starting to look like Vietnam without the jungle. So you think Vietnam is too strong an analogy? Then go back to the newsmagazines of the time – say around 1966 and 1967 – and read all the “rosy scenarios” and “light at the end of the tunnel” pronouncements from President Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, and their cohorts. Attention President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, et al.: the similarities are scary. The young Crystal Ball rolled through the Vietnam era and remembers.

Think 1968. Hubert Humphrey was LBJ’s surrogate, and despite HHH’s best efforts to put some distance between his Vietnam policy and that of Johnson, he inevitably represented the status quo. A vote for Humphrey was a vote for more of the same, or so most people thought. Richard Nixon was not much liked, an unsavory retread – the laughable “New Nixon” image notwithstanding – but he was the legitimate alternative to the status quo in Vietnam. Yes, it truly was “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss,” as The Who dolefully sang, but a vote for Nixon was the only way Americans could try to turn the page, the only way citizens could attempt to extricate the nation from the bloody quagmire 8,000 miles away. If it had not been for George Wallace, who took millions of votes mainly from Nixon, the Republican would have won by roughly 55 percent to 45 percent, instead of the squeaker victory he actually achieved. George W. Bush is the LBJ/HHH candidate on Iraq, and if people want to extricate the country from the Iraq quagmire, they will have no choice but to vote for John Kerry, however much they may dislike him or disagree with him on other issues. If the preeminent issue in November is Iraq, Bush will lose. Two conclusions flow from this 1968 comparison.

One conclusion is obvious: If Iraq is in this kind of mess come the fall, and America is suffering troop casualties at this level, the Bushes can start their post-presidential planning early. And forget about running for reelection as the National Security President; no one in the nation will feel terribly secure if these sad events continue.

Second conclusion: The Bush team knows all this. That’s why, despite all the media cynicism, the President intends to keep his July 1 turnover deadline in Iraq. Let the Iraqi Governing Council deal with the violence and kidnapping and rioting during the general election campaign! Iraq, We Hardly Knew Ye. But don’t worry, we’ll be there in some form for years and years.

THE 9/11 COMMISSION: An Embarrassment

Whatever its self-serving motives, the Bush administration was absolutely right to oppose the formation of the 9/11 Commission – or as the Crystal Ball is calling it, The 20/20 Hindsight Commission – if only because 2004 is a presidential election year. (What were the Commission’s sponsors, Sens. Lieberman and McCain, thinking? Let’s see: One of them hoped to be the Democratic presidential nominee against Bush, and the other has, shall we say, a few bones to pick with the president.) Inevitably, such an election-year Commission was going to turn into a blame-game, finger-pointing, excessively partisan exercise. And now the Commission has exceeded all the worst expectations. As several commentators have pointed out, the applauding, cheering 9/11 families have turned the hearings into events that have the nasty whiff of Jerry Springer – or an old-fashioned mob. (Sympathy for the 9/11 families is enormous but not infinite. Most will receive massive monetary gifts from the taxpayers. By contrast, the families of dead soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq have gotten a relatively token payment from the citizens they protected at the cost of their lives.)

Notice that almost all the news networks have now decided, correctly, to identify Commission members by their party affiliation. The label certainly predicts what most of them are going to say. The American people naively hoped to see a nonpartisan Warren Commission on the 9/11 tragedy, but instead they have gotten a Bush-version of the Clinton impeachment hearings.

It is amusing to see members of the Beltway Establishment praising to the skies the Beltway Establishment-laden 9/11 Commission (possibly revealing in the process, their own party affiliation, since only one president seeking reelection this year is in the skillet). Interestingly, the electorate as a whole has been notably unimpressed with the Commission overall; anti-Bush and pro-Bush witnesses, Richard Clarke and Condoleezza Rice alike, have collectively failed to move the needle in most surveys of the Bush-Kerry contest.

The charade comes to an end, mercifully, on the eve of the Democratic Convention, with a Commission report whose contours can be easily predicted even now. Since the goal is Commission unanimity, equal blame will have to be apportioned to the Clinton and Bush administrations. Following that will be loads of recommendations that have been 1) obvious since 9/11; 2) already implemented – at least in part; and/or 3) impractical or destined to be ignored until the next disaster. When it is released in late July, the report will become a tough-leather political football in Boston, presumably thrown from field to field and coast to coast all the way to November.

Does anyone remember that the true guilty party for 9/11 was Osama bin Laden and his band of sick mass-murderers?

THE ECONOMY: Bush’s Salvation?

Oddly, poll after poll shows that Bush still commands majority support for Iraq while he is roundly condemned for his economic performance. We say “oddly” since Iraq is getting significantly worse and the American economy is undeniably improving. Is this the people’s fixed view or just the usual lag of public opinion behind changing realities? If it’s the former, the Crystal Ball has long believed that President Bush will have great difficulty winning reelection. If it’s the latter, Bush might pull out a victory based on a (temporary) calming of troubled Iraqi waters and the electorate’s happiness with brighter jobs numbers and an all-round gain in economic momentum.

The stunning addition of 308,000 jobs in March – plus an upgrading of job gains for January and February – offers Bush his salvation. The trick, though, is that he needs strong numbers through the early fall in order to convince Americans that this shift is real, and not simply an election-year manipulation of the depressing statistics to which they have become accustomed for the entire Bush term.

Additionally, Bush has to hope that he isn’t tripped up by some new disaster on the economic front (unyielding gasoline price increases, hikes in interest rates by the Federal Reserve, etc.)

It’s a high-wire act by a President who has most resembled a yo-yo in popularity. Barely elected and headed for a mediocre, one-term presidency, Bush was sent to the summit of public adulation after Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent successes in Afghanistan and the 2002 midterm election. While controversial, Iraq worked well for a time, pushing Bush well above 60 percent again. Now struggling even to reach 50 percent in many surveys, and lagging John Kerry in many (though not all) major national polls, George W. Bush is being pounded on all sides in a way he has not experienced since the 2000 campaign and recount.

John Kerry is not the strongest Democratic nominee the Crystal Ball has seen over the years, but despite his faults, he can overcome Bush’s attacks and win the White House as long as the American people continue to be as unsettled as they are now. The electorate is gathered in the American Coliseum, and their vote has remarkably little to do with Kerry in what is shaping up to be an incredible, historic year in the nation’s politics. Instead, come Nov. 2, the Coliseum’s occupants will extend their arms collectively, and with the imperial majesty ironically created only by a democracy, they will turn thumbs up or thumbs down. As George W. Bush energetically – his opponents would say desperately – tries to avoid the death throes of thumbs down, the president needs the blessing of the one critical figure to desert him in 2004: not Richard Clarke or Paul O’Neill, but the goddess Fortuna. Some good luck on Iraq, the war on terrorism, and the many facets of the economy can save Bush, and maybe even propel him to a substantial victory that would wipe out memories of 2000. Maybe. Right now, this scenario seems very far out of reach, an electoral pipedream for a beleaguered leader. And there are only 203 days until Bush’s latest rendezvous with destiny.