Can Bush be toppled?

"Yes, but ..." says a Salon panel of political fortunetellers including Robert Dallek, John Fund, Sherman Alexie, Donna Brazile and Pat Caddell.

Published June 11, 2003 5:08PM (EDT)

He's riding high in Aqaba, forcing Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas to talk peace in the Middle East. He's Top Gun on the flight deck of the USS Lincoln, triumphantly greeting the troops to declare war with Iraq over, looking manly in his flight suit. He's pushed two gargantuan tax cuts through Congress, and his approval ratings remain sky high. True, in some 2004 election polls he's only a few points ahead of an "unnamed Democrat" -- but he trounces any of the Democrats currently running for president by at least 10 points.

Can George W. Bush be beaten in 2004? Every one of the dozen experts Salon asked that question answered a resounding "Yes, but ..." There's consensus that the economy will matter more than Republicans want to believe, that Bush is vulnerable as long as Iraq remains unstable, that the growing controversy over the missing WMDs might finally hurt him with voters, that Americans would rather have Social Security and public education stabilized than a tax cut for the wealthy -- but the Democrats haven't found the message or messenger yet to make a persuasive case.

Salon asked a range of political pundits, operatives and scholars to comment on the chances of Bush being upset next year. Their replies start below, and will run through the rest of the week. In the coming days we'll hear from Tom Hayden, Steven Brill, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Paul Berman and more.

Presidential historian Robert Dallek

A sitting president is always beatable. You just cannot assume anything in American politics a year and a half ahead of an election. I think Bush is most vulnerable now on two counts. One is the economy; if there's a kind of continuing deflation -- which the economists are worried about now -- if there is a recession that enters into the picture, I think it's going to remind people a lot of his father. He's a very smart politician, or at least surrounded by smart politicians, and they will, of course, make the case for the idea that he's intensely concerned about the economy and doing everything in his power to right the ship.

I think he's also potentially vulnerable on this issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- if they're not found and there's a continuing drumbeat about the idea that he pushed us into this war without really having authoritative information. I think the Democrats smell this as an issue. And it's not just the Democrats; there are Republicans in the Senate who are concerned about this -- most concerned, not about the idea that the intelligence services may have had it wrong, but that the administration may have exaggerated and distorted it.

John Fund, Wall Street Journal columnist

It would be the height of arrogance for anyone to suggest that an incumbent president can't be beaten. They get credit for the good things that happen during their administration, regardless of whether or not they had much to do with it, but they also get a lot of blame for the bad things that happen, even if they had nothing to do with those.

Bush has a commanding position in foreign policy, and an ambivalent position with the voters in the economy. If the economy continues to be less than strong, or becomes weaker, obviously that would be a major opportunity for the Democrats. The major problem the Democrats have is A) a stature gap, namely that their presidential field is not well known and two-thirds of the voters can't identify a single Democratic candidate, and B) Bush's tax cut is front-loaded, so it will have about $45 billion worth of stimulus the first year. So if tax cuts do indeed stimulate the economy, Bush will probably have a more robust economy a year and a half from now, when he faces the voters. So, of course Bush can be beaten, but at the same time incumbent presidents have a commanding ability to set the agenda, change the terms of debate, and obviously have an enormous advantage in name recognition and political clout. Bush is the favorite, but circumstances can change, and you never say never in politics.

Dick Gephardt has at least started by laying out real, substantive plans on how he would differ from Bush. You can argue with his healthcare plan, but it's bold, it's visionary, it's a break from the past, and I think Bush takes that seriously. The Democrats can't be Bush-like, but they also can't be blindly oppositional, like Howard Dean is. I think Howard Dean's sort of angry, in-your-face opposition to Bush plays well with Democratic primary voters but probably not with general election voters.

In terms of national security, if the Democrats are to retake that issue they may have to wait for something no American should wish for, which is a massive foreign policy failure. Other than that I think they're doing their best. John Kerry at least can claim he served in Vietnam; Dick Gephardt can say he supported the war in Iraq. I think some of the Democratic candidates have legitimate cover on that and some of them don't, including Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean and various others. I don't think they're credible on those issues.

Author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie

We need a tough-ass Democrat coming out on national security. In fact, the Republicans haven't been very tough on domestic security; they've been cutting budgets. I've been writing imaginary campaign ads about the failure of this administration to protect us. Here are two:


A middle-aged homeless man standing at a freeway on-ramp. He holds a sign that reads: "Vietnam War Veteran, Please Help Me!"

VOICE-OVER: In 2003, George W. Bush cut the budget for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by nearly $30 billion over the next 10 years.

Cut to a younger homeless man standing outside a supermarket. He holds a sign: "Desert Storm Veteran: Will Work for Food."

VOICE-OVER: In 2003, George W. Bush ordered the Veterans Administration to stop providing information about veterans' healthcare benefits on its Web site.

Cut to a video of a husband and wife working on their home computer. As they navigate the V.A. site, they are led through a maze of indecipherable info.

She: But, Henry, you served in Korea. They promised to take care of you.

He: I just don't understand what they're trying to say to me.

Close on the computer screen as Henry pulls down the menu and shuts off the computer. It goes black.

Then dissolve up to a shot of George W. Bush jogging with his Secret Service agents. Bush looks fit and handsome.

VOICE-OVER: In November 2004, please remember that the war doesn't end when our soldiers come home.



A title card that asks the question: "Do You Feel Safe?"

Cut to news video of George W. Bush pledging to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive."

Slam cut to wanted poster of Osama with caption: "Whereabouts Unknown."

Cut to news video of George W. Bush pledging to get Saddam Hussein "dead or alive."

Slam cut to wanted poster of Saddam with caption: "Whereabouts Unknown."

Cut to news video of George W. Bush promising to protect the security of the American people.

Slam cut montage of sports arenas, national monuments, dams and nuclear power plants as we repeatedly hear in voice-over George W.'s broken promises to find Osama and Saddam, and his pledge to protect the U.S. They all blend together in a cacophony of noise and image and bright lights.

Cut to the title card that reads: "Do You Feel Safe?"

Cut to a news video montage of the many times that Bush has told us that the U.S. hasn't found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but that we're going to find them very soon, we promise, very soon, we promise, very soon, we promise. Very soon.


Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore's presidential run

George Bush is beatable in 2004. The 2004 presidential campaign is not about the decision to go to war, rather the aftermath of the war. Bush is vulnerable on many fronts, from campaign promises to balancing the budget to recent promises to keep America safe and secure. Democrats must reclaim their soul and fight for the interest of Main Street, not just Wall Street. Every issue will be in play, but the party must launch a major grass-roots campaign against the harsh, poisonous partisan tone Bush has created since taking office. Under Bush's leadership, America has returned to deficit spending and a bias toward the wealthy. Democrats must defend working families and fight for a sane and sensible budget and spending priorities that meet our urgent needs.

Sept. 11, 2001, altered the political landscape for both parties. For Republicans, the American people believe that they will protect and defend America's interest and track down the terrorists one by one. As for Democrats, my party must erase the perception that we are weak on issues of national security and homeland defense. We can start by articulating our vision of "peace" and international diplomacy. We must also state emphatically that we are not afraid to use force if it will save American lives.

The irony is that the GOP has changed its electoral recipe for victory. Soon after the 2000 presidential campaign, Karl Rove convened a high-level session of Republican operatives and strategists to encourage them to come back with a plan to mobilize GOP-leaning voters in the final 72 hours of campaigning. During the 2002 midterm election, the GOP out-hustled and -organized Democrats in many key congressional and senatorial races. Democrats and their traditional allies in the labor and civil rights communities were outspent in the field and in the implementation of effective door-to-door voter contact programs. Once again, the party took its base for granted by campaigning late in those communities that traditionally vote Democratic and failed to muster the type of grass-roots, shoe-licking politics that we branded so many years ago. It's time for Democrats to return to the basics in 2004.

Medea Benjamin, Green Party leader

There's a certain part of me that thinks, of course George Bush is going to win this next election. They've got control of the media, they've got their one candidate whereas we're all fighting about our candidates, we've got our Green Party dilemma -- do we run, don't we run. They've got the money, they've got the power and they've got the fear factor. And there's another part of me that says that this administration is so bad, and this economy is so bad, that they're not going to be able to keep distracting us with either a foreign war or an orange alert. That at some point the truth of how they're bankrupting our government and our economy has got to get through.

So yes, he's beatable, and we've got to find ways between the Greens and the Democrats and the 38 percent of the population that doesn't identify with either the Democrats or the Republicans. The Democrats and the Greens need to be talking to each other. There are a lot of people who are furious with the Democratic Party and they're not acknowledging that. We've got to come together to defeat him.

One of the things the peace movement is doing is bringing the global community together to say no to the Bush agenda, and try to show Americans how much the Bush administration is creating hate for Americans around the world and making us less safe. That if we had a president who believed in multilateralism and nonviolent ways of solving conflict that this would make us safer at home. The Bush administration is not good for American safety or prosperity.

Pollster and political consultant Pat Caddell, who advised Jimmy Carter's insurgent 1976 presidential campaign

I believe that beating Bush is far more possible than I believed it possible Jimmy Carter could be elected in 1976. Because ultimately the country doesn't support what he's doing. He's very popular personally, he's got high leadership marks and he'll probably keep them. But this administration is out of whack with the rest of the country, and he's vulnerable on the question: Where does he want to go? The real problem is the Democrats just seem hopeless right now. The Democratic Party has abandoned the issue that would blow the race sky high: The corporate scandals, the second gilded age we've lived through. But the party's been sold lock, stock and barrel to the same corporate interests -- they own the Republicans but they rent out the Democrats. Do you know that 8 percent of people who were in retirement have had to go back and work? Their 401Ks were plundered. Those college education funds some states allowed? Gone. But Democrats only seem to understand all this stuff as a class issue. It wasn't a class issue to Teddy Roosevelt -- it was about stealing. It wasn't about rich people and poor people. But when you're bought, you're bought. The Democrats' largest area of fundraising is from Wall Street. Bill Clinton sold the party to business. And at least the country knows what Bush is: He's a hell of a gambler. He and Karl Rove have learned the one thing that matters: Presidential politics always rewards audacity.

Still, Bush's real problem -- and I saw this with Carter in the hostage situation -- is that he's so absorbed with foreign policy that he has no time for domestic policy, except maybe to give a speech. I don't know why everyone says Rove's a genius -- I mean, this country was split down the middle in 2000, and now you're going to destroy your suburban base on the environment? These people are open about wanting deficits to destroy the government. This is an ideological attack on an American ideal of community that goes back to John Winthrop and his "city on the hill" speech on the Arabella in 1630. They're assaulting fundamental American values. So yes, you can beat George Bush, but it's going to be on matters of large questions and big ideas, and the Democrats are all about this or that program.

The problem is that since 1984, the Democrats have pressed to be an insider-controlled party. The front-loading of the system was to make sure nobody else got control of the party. But the grass roots of the party is in revolt. This is a classic situation for an insurgent, anti-establishment candidacy. That's what Howard Dean's supposed to be. I don't know enough. John Edwards says he's that, but he's not. If Jimmy Carter had just retired as Georgia governor this year, I would get on the plane and talk him into running, and he would spook this race. Carter was running an anti-establishment, anti-Washington, anti-corruption campaign. That's how a peanut farmer from the South became president, when the South had not had a serious presidential candidate in years. Everyone says, "Oh he was a Southerner, and that means we need a Southerner.' That wasn't what it was about. Looking back, it's astounding. But it's partly because of who's writing the history. The Democratic Leadership Council wrote the history -- and really, they're all lobbyists. This party is in thrall to people who don't know anything except how to make money.

Thursday: San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway and author Steven Brill say Bush is beatable -- but Brown insists the media's been "pimped."

By Joan Walsh

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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By Laura McClure

Laura McClure is assistant news editor at Salon.

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2004 Elections Democratic Party Joan Walsh