The Washington Times

Quiz time, folks: Who was it that ran against FDR in 1944? I must confess, I had forgotten. But I was in excellent company, as the couple dozen people to whom I’ve put the question over the past couple weeks, all of them quite knowledgeable about politics and most of them in the business, likewise mainly found themselves scratching their heads.

For all those readers who remember perfectly well who FDR’s 1944 opponent was, we, the ignorant, salute you. But the point of the question is not, of course, to play trivia games. It’s to raise the possibility that a future trivia question is unfolding before our very eyes, namely, who was it that ran against George W. Bush in 2004?

The country’s political mood has taken a decidedly, pro-Bush, pro-Republican turn in the months since September 11. It’s evident in Mr. Bush’s sky-high job approval rating, in the lead Republicans enjoy over Democrats in the so-called “generic” ballot asking people which party they will support in congressional elections, and in the remarkable inroads Republicans have made against traditional Democratic strengths on “issue handling” questions (e.g., which party do you trust more on education?).

Obviously, there’s the war. And Mr. Bush is every inch the wartime president, both in his conduct and in the political benefit he enjoys from public approval of it. (Yes, the nation rallies behind the president in wartime; but whether it stays rallied depends on how the president conducts the war. For further information, contact the ghost of LBJ.) The Bush presidency has an entirely new permanent focus, and lo and behold, it is focused. And people are responding with approval.

So it’s time to ask a simple question: Which is more likely, given the givens? Gradual dissipation of Mr. Bush’s popularity, and the GOP’s with it? Or consolidation of this popularity (though not necessarily at current levels) into an FDR-style juggernaut?

Well, there’s the example of George H.W. Bush and the Gulf War. After the war, amid a sinking economy, the current president’s father lost his focus and his way, blowing his huge wartime popularity and losing the election. Democrats are clearly hoping for Bush redux.

There are a few problems with this scenario, however. First, the Gulf War was short, and the war on terrorism and on states seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction is going to be long. Mr. Bush was quite clear on that point in his State of the Union speech. “This campaign may not be finished on our watch,” he said, calling ours “a decisive decade in the history of liberty.” Likewise, the Gulf War was remote, captured on video, whereas the terror campaign is intimate, kindling fear for personal safety as well as resolve to do something about.

Moreover, the Gulf War brought no lasting policy changes. Once Saddam Hussein was ejected from Kuwait, there was not much else to do but throw the ticker-tape parades (in the absence, that is, of a willingness to try to topple his government). This war is in the process of transforming the federal budget and the shape and focus of government. Nor is daily life in this country likely to return anytime soon to its prewar complacency, especially as new security measures ranging from airport “trusted passenger” programs to anthrax and smallpox vaccinations come on line.

The economy could drastically worsen, but it seems more likely that the recession is coming to an end, which is good timing for Mr. Bush. Moreover, even through the bad times, Mr. Bush has won high marks on his handling of the economy. Surely, there’s a wartime popularity spillover. But Mr. Bush has also been actively building a political case for himself, something his father couldn’t pull off in 1991-92. The president’s latest target, again spelled out in the state of the union, is to deprive Democrats of their advantage with voters on the subject of “jobs.”

But the biggest reason to think Mr. Bush has an excellent chance of consolidating his popularity is the extent to which his own top priority, namely, terror and security from it, is also the nation’s top priority – by huge margins. This does two things. First, it all but requires his political opponents to begin their comments with declarations of support for him in the war effort. “United we stand,” etc. Second, the war crowds out other issues. Democrats are finding it difficult to engage the public with a coherent alternative to Mr. Bush because the president owns issue No. 1.

Enron and other scandals may take a toll. I think the vice president has a serious political problem over the release of the energy task force records. But while Enron is a fine sideshow, it’s hard to see it turning into the main event. And if Mr. Bush needs a new running mate in 2004, as FDR did in 1944, he has other attractive choices, starting with his secretary of state. Hmm. Talk about the possibility of a new FDR-style grand political coalition.

And no, I’m not going to make you look it up. FDR’s opponent in 1944 was Thomas E. Dewey, in his first of two losing bids.