The presidential election is one year away.
That means the campaign is three-quarters of the way finished, since modern campaigns begin the day after Election Day. The 2004 election, in fact, is a short one because of the Battle of Florida, which delayed the neo-traditional start time by a few weeks.
Two questions seem to be dominating the ponderings of ponderers of the political zeitgeist: Is President Bush vulnerable? What is this election all about? My answers are pretty straightforward: Yes and mistrust (of both sides).
I have detected three camps of campaign existentialists thus far in the cycle. Depending on your sect, the campaign is primarily about the economy, foreign policy or a culture war.
There's nothing tricky about the first two. Elections are almost always about the economy. The basic take this year is that if the economy is bad, or if the economy is perceived as bad, incumbent Bush loses. Republicans hope this recession came early enough in Bush's term for a rebound that he will get some credit for; they were delighted by the impressive GDP figures that came out last week. Democrats hope a discernible recovery takes awhile. What's unique about this election is – nothing.
The foreign policy camp is smaller. "Next year, for the first time in three decades," wrote James Mann in The Washington Post, "foreign policy will be the dominant issue of a presidential election." I think in the months after 9/11 most voters would have agreed with that and now most voters would not. That itself is a remarkable indication of how fast our political worldviews change. After 9/11, it seemed the landscape of issues Americans cared about was changed forever. Now it doesn't.
I belong to a sub-set of the culture war commentariat.
The main culture war theorists see this election as a clash between two alien populations: "conservatives" who may be unsympathetic to abortion rights, government activism, homosexual rights, environmentalism, gun control and supportive of religious conservatism, the death penalty, tax-cutting, military might; "liberals" who may be hostile to the Bush doctrine, anti-intellectualism, the death penalty, deficits, religious conservatism and sympathetic to abortion rights, gun control, homosexual rights, expanded entitlement programs, environmentalism, and multilateralism.
I have come to believe that this demarcation of opposing camps is too issue-oriented and substantive. The schism is reflected in the issues, but it's more about values, aesthetics and lifestyle. It's gut level. It's not a culture war; it's a feud, a frat war, the jocks vs. the chess club.
It's Clinton-haters and Bush-haters. The driving impulse is mistrust; each side profoundly mistrusts, and dislikes, the other – not the policies, but the very essence. It's personal.
This grudge match is painfully and shamefully evident in the best-seller lists, talk-radio and talk TV – the ceaseless, full volume, and, to my mind, skin-crawling argument between polemicists who call their worthy opponents are liars, idiots and traitors.
But politicians fight the fight as much as pundits, politicians on both sides. Columnist David Brooks refers to this as the "presidency wars." "The fundamental argument in the presidency wars is not that the president is wrong, or is driven by a misguided ideology. That's so 1980's," Brooks wrote. "The fundamental argument now is that he is illegitimate. He is so ruthless, dishonest and corrupt, he undermines the very rules of civilized society. Many conservatives believed this about Clinton." And many liberals now think it of Bush.
I see this war in my e-mail in-box every day. If I write a column – or even a paragraph in a nice column - critical of President Bush, scores of irate e-epistles instantly appear loaded with bathroom insults, charges of liberal bias and even, bless their old-fashioned hearts, accusations that I am a Communist. When I write something positive about the administration – even a nice paragraph in a mean piece – I am called a tool of corporate media, an administration pimp and, again, various bathroom names.
I believe the politically engaged in this country are profoundly polarized. (Ironically, I also believe this is happening at a time when the substantive differences between the parties are as narrow as they have been in decades.) I had thought, and many still think, that 9/11 diminished the schism that grew bloody during the Florida recount, that it unified the country. I no longer believe that. I think a toxic mistrust and deep disrespect of the "other side" will mark this election.
So, yes, Bush is vulnerable to repeating the fate of his father. And the eventual Democrat nominee is vulnerable to repeating the fate of Bob Dole and Walter Mondale.
Bush has many advantages: he's the incumbent, he's better funded than any candidate in history, the sum of his overall public approval is greater than the approval for his positions, as was true of Ronald Reagan. The third year of a president's first term is always a low point so Bush's frailty is probably exaggerated now.
But my sense is that the feuding families of mistrustful voters are roughly equal in size. The election of 2000 is compelling evidence of that. A senior Bush campaign official told some CBS News reporters recently that the country is "closely divided" and this election "will look more like '00."
Regardless of how the economy, the terror threat and the Iraqi situation are seen next fall, probably independent of the big, unknown stories that are bound to break before then (and there will be some), I would be most surprised if this isn't a very close election. There is too much mistrust and bad blood for any candidate to catch a wave. The existentialists call it alienation.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer