Michael Kramer | Bush Could Be A One-Termer
Bush Could be a One-Termer
By Michael Kramer
The New York Daily News
Sunday 13 July 2003
President Bush could lose the 2004 election. Before now, I didn't think that was possible. Considering Bush's general popularity, political skills that dwarf his father's and the prospective Democratic alternatives, I thought Bush would win reelection - and probably easily.
What's changed? The prospect for a major scandal involving the administration's arguments for going to war against Iraq and, specifically, the President's cavalier, even arrogant, responses to the charge that he and his aides distorted or exaggerated the intelligence on which the case for battle rested.
This story, only now unfolding, is getting uglier every day.
Right now, the focus is on Bush's assertion, made in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, that deposed dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to develop a nuclear weapons program by buying uranium in Africa.
The intel on which that claim was based, relying as it did on forged documents, has now been shot down.
The key question is this: Did the administration know the intelligence was bogus when the President used it to help justify toppling Saddam?
Over the past week, the White House position has shifted. At first, the Bushies pointed to the careful way in which the President had said it was the British who had uncovered the uranium evidence.
Then, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "The CIA cleared the [State of the Union] speech in its entirety."
In that broadside, Rice went further, saying that if CIA head George Tenet had said, "'Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone."
Next, on Friday, the President echoed Rice: In Uganda, Bush said, "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services."
Hours later, Tenet fell on his sword. In a written statement, the CIA chief confirmed the President's account and said the 16-word sentence in Bush's speech should "never" have been included, a mistake for which he took responsibility as the agency's director.
One other piece of the drama deserves noting. A few days after Bush's State of the Union address, Secretary of State Powell made the case for war at the UN and pointedly refused to repeat the uranium charge - a reluctance apparently based on the fact that State's own spooks had told him the assertion couldn't be supported.
As the flap unfolded a few days ago, Powell told CNN's Larry King that while he wasn't sure how the uranium allegation made it into Bush's address, it was "not a deliberate attempt by the President to mislead or exaggerate." That claim, Powell added, "is just ridiculous."
The White House believes Tenet's mea culpa will put the controversy to rest, but there's something else about Bush's handling of this mess that leads me to conclude the President's reelection could be in jeopardy.
A day before saying the "intelligence services" had "cleared" his State of the Union speech, Bush told reporters, "One thing is certain: [Saddam Hussein] is not trying to buy anything right now."
Leaving aside the administration's new admission that Saddam's still alive - and therefore the chance that he might be trying to buy something right now - the President's comment was an arrogant dismissal of those who think this is a big deal, which it is.
Arrogance is something voters don't like. We want our leaders to be confident - and to project confidence. We'll even accept the macho jingoism in which this particular President often couches his confidence.
But the line between confidence and arrogance is thin, and when it's crossed, all bets are off.
Recall that the first President Bush lost in 1992 because he seemed to arrogantly dismiss the concerns many voters felt about the economy. "Message: I care," Bush 41's infamous attempt to connect with voter anxiety, was taken by many as proof that their patrician President didn't even understand their pain, let alone feel it.
Bush 43 is a looser guy and a smarter pol than his dad, and in dealing with today's economic troubles, he has not - or at least not yet- made the same mistake.
But Bush's off-the-cuff comment about Saddam is a mistake in the same zone of arrogance. If he keeps it up, it could cost him dearly. No matter how Tenet and other administration figures move to protect the President, the Democrats are sure to highlight the flap during the 2004 campaign.
Now the difference between '92 and 2004 can be summed up in a name: Bill Clinton. In other words, this Bush won't lose unless the Democrats run a similarly charismatic candidate capable of appealing to the vast center that determines presidential elections.
So far, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is exuding the most energy on the Democratic side, yet he is the most left-leaning of the major wanna-bes. In the end, it's hard to see Dean beating Bush, although it isn't hard to see him capturing the Democratic nomination.
But it's still early in the '04 cycle, other Democrats could emerge and Bush suddenly seems tone deaf to the trouble he's causing himself. We could have a race after all.
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