Richard Reeves

Republican Paradox, Democratic Dilemma

LONDON -- I felt hot flashes of anger on Thursday afternoon when cheering anti-Bush demonstrators -- all claimed to be anti-Bush but not anti-American -- pulled down a 17-foot, gold-painted papier-mache effigy of my president. The idea of the mini-drama was to equate Bush and Saddam Hussein, whose golden statue in Baghdad was similarly toppled last April.

The scene and the comparison literally turned my American stomach. I am anti-Bush and opposed to his stupid war of choice in Iraq. I think he is a lousy president, but he is no Saddam, and Americans are not a whipped people.

Americans, me among them, intuitively rally round the flag in self-righteous patriotism that makes foreigners crazy. We always have. "The worse you do, the more they like you," said President John F. Kennedy after he saw his approval rating jump more than 10 percentage points in the wake of his disastrous adventure in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

That paradox now applies to a Republican president. In the short run, the worse President Bush does, the better he looks. He, after all, is the one saying terrorists are everywhere, waiting to kill Americans and other innocents abroad. Bad news -- the latest from Istanbul -- tends to validate the bellicose scare-talk from the White House. (I think the bombing in Bali, just before the 2002 congressional elections, may have saved Republican control of the House of Representatives by validating Bush's fears and rhetoric.)

In a longer run -- the race to Election Day 2004 is as far as politicians can see -- the same set of events is helping to create a dilemma for Democrats and other Bush antagonists. They secretly have to hope that things go bad (or stay bad) abroad and at home. I have talked with more than a few Democrats of prestige and position who have trouble hiding secret glee over bad economic numbers or even ambushes in Iraq.

That's the way it is in the politics of electing presidents. It's a dirty little secret, but not a new one. In 1970, in the taped privacy of the Oval Office, President Nixon said that if American voters understood that anti-war Democrats secretly wanted the United States to lose the war in Vietnam, Republicans would hold the White House for the next 50 years.

Part of the Republican paradox and the Democratic dilemma has to do with the great differences in the wars President Bush chose to fight after Sept. 11, 2001. An overwhelming majority of Americans, whatever their political affiliations, understood and supported action in Afghanistan. Taliban rulers had provided shelter and cover for al Qaida and for Osama bin Laden. We had every justification for that invasion. The pity is that we did not get Osama and more of his henchmen. They were our enemy -- and obviously still are a danger to us everywhere in the world.

America was united then. The world was, too. Then Bush threw it all away. He has many explanations for why we went into Iraq -- they change with the weather of events -- but what he calls "noble" history is likely to judge him foolish. We are draining our resources and power into desert sands, and the world has turned on us.

Will American voters, too, turn on Bush? Hard to say. The 2004 election, like many before it, will begin as a referendum on the sitting president. But it may be finally decided by events unpredictable, or it may be decided by the Democrats. If Bush and his blunders are the issue next autumn, he will probably lose. If the Democratic candidate becomes the issue -- because of his record or incompetent campaigning -- then Bush will almost certainly be re-elected easily.

The Democrats have huge political problems going into this election season. Much as Bush has painted himself into a corner in Iraq -- how do we get out now? -- the Democrats have painted themselves into a political corner by deliberately scheduling more and more early primary elections. The election calendar was designed to produce a nominee late in February or early in March -- basically within the next three months -- to give that nominee more time to collect money and to attack Bush rather than campaign against other Democrats.

That strategy, like many other things these days, seems to be backfiring. The front runner now, Howard Dean, is essentially unknown and untested nationally, but because of the front-loading of primaries, he could lock up the nomination before most Democratic voters know who he is or what he is about. Perhaps he will be great, perhaps not. In times of paradox and dilemma, there is no predicting what will happen next.

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