What a difference a few weeks can make in American politics. Before Christmas, when Saddam Hussein was captured by American soldiers, many thought that President Bush would be unassailable in foreign policy. And with White House aides touting encouraging economic statistics, the stock market on the rise, and Howard Dean the likely Democratic nominee, all the signs were pointing to an easy re-election campaign.
Now that conventional wisdom has been up-ended. Recent national polls show Senator John Kerry, who crushed Dean in the primaries and is now almost certainly the nominee, ahead of Bush. Although it would be foolish to rush over to your broker to place a bet against Bush in next autumn's election, there is no question that there has been a profound shift in the fortunes of the Bush administration.
There are several reasons for this turnaround. The first is the revival of opposition politics in America. Europeans have long been puzzled as to why there seemed to be no effective political opposition to the Bush administration in America. What they didn't understand was how profoundly 9/11 changed our politics, and how hard it is for the Democrats to be heard when they are in the minority in Congress.
September 11 did affect our politics. For many months afterward, the politicians, the press and others understandably felt that the President deserved the support of all Americans while their country was under attack, and that he had done a good job of capturing the national mood when he called for a war against terrorism, rallied the world against al-Qa'ida, and overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan. But after six months or so, that effect began to fade. Then, when the White House turned its sights on Saddam Hussein's Iraq and pushed through massive tax cuts for the richest Americans rather than ask for sacrifice in a time of war, both of which proved controversial and neither of which were consistent with a war on al-Qa'ida, a dormant Democrat Party began to stir.
But it was Howard Dean, not the Washington Democrats, who first picked up the mantle of opposition. And whatever else one might think of Dean, you have to give him credit for sparking a return to normal politics in America. With much of the media and many of the Democrats wary of being labelled as unpatriotic for questioning the war in Iraq, Dean rode opposition to the war and the Bush tax cuts like a wave. Many Democrats were stunned to watch his rise. Not only wasn't he being tarred with being unpatriotic but he was actually becoming wildly popular among Democratic voters. And there is nothing politicians understand better than popularity. Thus the Democrats in Congress saw that it was time for the opposition to return to duty.
Dean's rise, while an important story for Democrats, didn't have much of an effect on President Bush. But that changed with the intense national media focus on the presiden-tial primaries this year. Suddenly, Kerry, Dean and the other candidates, Senator John Edwards and General Wesley Clark, were outbidding each other in their criticism of the Bush administration, and they were getting national attention as the loyal opposition.
A second worry for the White House was last month's publication of The Price of Loyalty, a book by Ron Suskind written in partnership with Paul O'Neill, President Bush's Treasury secretary. There were many detailed revelations in the book that made news, including the charge that the Administration began planning the Iraq war long before September 11 and that Vice President Dick Cheney said the ballooning budget deficit didn't matter.
But what really hurt the President was the fundamental argument made by a Bush insider: despite donning the mantle of patriotism in a time of war, the Bush White House was run by people who put politics over the national interest. One of the highest-ranking figures in the Bush Administration was telling the American people that this was no wartime president doing what's right for the country, no matter what the cost. This is a White House run by political operatives whose primary concern is cementing a Republican majority and re-electing the President. The O'Neill book had a big impact on a media elite that had been reluctant to challenge the White House.
The best example of this new combativeness in the press was last Sunday's interview with President Bush, in which there were repeated questions about his spurious claims on tax cuts and the deficit, and an open challenge to stop cutting taxes on the rich while demanding sacrifices from our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A third factor is foreign policy. When Saddam Hussein was captured, many Americans expected the situation in Iraq to improve. After all, the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had repeatedly argued that the attacks on American soldiers and civilians in Iraq were the work of "dead-enders" associated with the old Hussein regime. But over the last month, Americans have been killed and wounded day after day, helicopters are being shot down, and suicide bombers are killing and wounding thousands of Iraqis.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration's plans for a smooth transition from an American occupation to a new Iraqi government are being derailed by opposition from the majority Shia community and their spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani. With Kurds demanding autonomy or even independence in the north, violent attacks in the Sunni triangle, and new demands from Shias in the south, experts, including the CIA, fear civil war.
Many Americans were deeply troubled by the way the Administration began the war with Iraq. They didn't like the fact that the White House had alienated so much of the world with its bungled diplomacy and bullying style. But that would have seemed a price worth paying if it had all gone as smoothly as Bush Administration officials had predicted. While it may seem breathtakingly naive today, in the run-up to the war Bush officials claimed that we would be greeted as liberators, that Iraqi police and military would provide security, that reconstruction would be "self-financing" through the sale of Iraqi oil, and that a new Iraqi government could be quickly established, allowing America to quickly draw down its forces with a new democratic government in place. One year later we are still a long way from building a stable Iraq with a legitimate democratic government in place.
Last but not least is the President's credibility with the country. The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction at all has undermined what the Bush White House thought was its key asset: the American people trusted George Bush to be straight and honest with them. With the findings of the CIA's survey group this month, it is evident not only that there was a massive intelligence failure but also that the Bush White House exaggerated and hyped the threat from Iraq. Yet the President still refuses to acknowledge in simple and clear terms that the primary rationale for an urgent war turned out to be wrong. He is now paying a political price both for exaggerating the danger and for not levelling with the American people that the threat from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons simply wasn't there. Recent polls indicate an important swing in American attitudes on this crucial question.
Taken together, these factors have changed the American political landscape. But there are still nine long months and many more political cycles before the American people choose their next President. Of course, as in many past elections, gutter politics is already inspiring the irresponsible members of the media to attack the nominees' private lives.
On a more serious note, the economy could improve. The stock market could continue to climb. Osama bin Ladin could even be captured. Those events would be good news for America and, by the oldest rules of politics, good news for whoever is occupying the Oval Office.
James Rubin was assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration from 1997 to 2000, and is now a visiting professor of international relations at the London School of EconomicsReuse content