Most people believe that the state of Iraq come November will largely determine whether George W. Bush is reelected. A stable Iraq, this reasoning goes, helps Bush, while a chaotic, violent Iraq could doom his chances. But that bit of conventional wisdom has looked shaky in recent weeks, as Iraq has gotten worse and Bush's poll numbers have gotten better. The latest Gallup poll has Bush widening his lead over John Kerry from 4 to 6 points. A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a 1-point increase in Bush's approval ratings over the past six weeks. On the question of which candidate can be trusted to handle the situation in Iraq, Bush went from being 1 point down in early March (before the Iraqi insurgency began) to being 11 points up in late April.
At this point, Kerry has to wonder whether he's in a parallel political universe. It seems neither logical nor fair that problems in Iraq should boost the president who sent U.S. troops there in the first place, while imperiling the challenger who voiced qualms about the invasion before it happened. But odd as this will sound, it's worth considering the possibility that failure in Iraq is helping Bush's reelection chance -- and that immediate U.S. success in Iraq is Kerry's only chance to win.
This apparent paradox has more to do with Kerry than Bush. The Post/ABC poll showed that Bush's disapproval numbers on Iraq (54 percent) and terrorism (35 percent) have been climbing for the last four months, and are currently at their highest levels ever. The problem is not that Bush is unbeatable; the problem is that he seems unbeatable when compared to Kerry.
This is because Kerry is in an impossible box on Iraq. Mainstream Democrats like Kerry may have opposed going into Iraq last year, but now they're stuck with the proof of purchase. Few Democrats want to see the U.S. pull out of the country. It's worth remembering that even Howard Dean, the most vocal of the antiwar candidates, said last summer that he wanted to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. Kerry's conundrum is that the politically coherent position of opposing the war both before and after the invasion is substantively unappealing. On a normal issue, if a challenger disagrees with an incumbent -- and, moreover, if the incumbent's initiatives are both objectively failing and increasingly unpopular -- then the challenger can simply advocate taking the opposite approach. But Iraq isn't a normal issue; there is no opposite approach (or, at least, no responsible opposite approach). There are also political considerations -- Kerry is fighting a decades-old perception that the Democrats are soft on national security issues. So Kerry needs to find a way to oppose Bush on Iraq without advocating a pullout of U.S. troops. Simply reminding everyone about his prewar qualms is not doing the trick.
Kerry's response over the past month has been to try to marry his criticism on Iraq to a broader point about Bush alienating U.S. allies. For example, on "Meet the Press" last week, Kerry said in response to a question about how he would handle Iraq: "I will immediately reach out to other nations in a very different way from this administration. Within weeks of being inaugurated, I will return to the U.N. and I will literally, formally rejoin the community of nations and turn over a proud new chapter in America's relationship with the world." This position sounds faintly familiar -- and it should, because it was the Clinton administration's policy in Somalia after Mogadishu: internationalize the problem to the United Nations as a way to reduce U.S. commitments over the long run. In 1993, the Clinton team thought that staying in Somalia another six months was sufficient to show resolve. A decade later, everyone agrees that the pullout was a mistake -- even Richard Clarke pointed this out in Against All Enemies. As a result, this tack isn't likely to get Kerry very far.
The senator's remaining option is to run to Bush's right by demanding that more U.S. troops and firepower be dispatched to Iraq. Andrew Sullivan has suggested that this could be Kerry's Sister Souljah moment vis-à-vis the antiwar left. The senator has hinted at this position, but can't make it his full-throated battle cry without enraging segments of his Democratic base, something he can ill afford to do. Put simply: Kerry has no good political options on Iraq; it would be in his political interest for the entire situation to fade from the spotlight. The only way for that to happen is for the situation to improve.
If you think Kerry's political position is weird, consider the Bush administration's situation. Ordinarily, presidents are rewarded for doing their jobs well. In Bush's case, however, quiet in Iraq would allow Americans to focus on their pocketbooks. While the economy -- and Bush's approval numbers on the issue -- have rebounded from lows, the president remains far weaker on domestic issues than on international affairs. Democrats can still claim that Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a decline in the number of jobs. The latest Gallup poll shows a 54 percent disapproval rating on Bush's handling of the economy. Bush's best hope for reelection is for the electorate to focus on his leadership abilities -- and one way for that to happen is for there to be trouble in Iraq.
Now, before conspiracy theorists start squealing with delight, this does not mean that it's in Bush's interest to purposely fail in Iraq. It's important to remember that Bush's best strategy for reelection remains to succeed both in Iraq and on the economy. That's still a possibility. But just as successes have unintended consequences, so do failures. And it seems more and more likely that one unintended consequence of a failure in Iraq could be a boost for Bush. If so, the conventional wisdom would end up being half right and dead wrong at the same time: Bush's chances for reelection might very well depend on the state of Iraq come November. Just not in the way everyone thinks.
Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of "The Sanctions Paradox" (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at www.danieldrezner.com/blog.
By Daniel W. Drezner