The Washington Times

There is nothing wrong with George W. Bush’s re-election prospects that a little conspicuous success wouldn’t cure. The economy is now delivering the goods – and the jobs – and it is probably only a matter of time before Mr. Bush gets credit for basic competence in its management. The most recent Associated Press/Ipsos poll shows that a solid majority of Americans, 57 percent, think the economy has lost jobs in the past six months, when in fact employment has grown by 1.2 million. Perception eventually will move more into line with reality.

Meanwhile, people also have begun to figure out that when economic growth comes in higher than expected, the federal budget deficit tends to decline. So Mr. Bush accordingly will have a chance to blunt part of the argument that he is fiscally irresponsible.

But what about Iraq? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if events there remain on a par with those of April and May, the essential competence of the administration on the top policy priority of its own choosing will be gravely in doubt, with potentially disastrous political consequences.

But it is by no means certain that April represents the future. On the ground, the Iraqi interim government looks promising, and it seems to me that Iraqis themselves are increasingly coming to realize that the life-and-death struggle now going on there actually has very little to do with the United States anymore. The insurrectionist elements wouldn’t be satisfied even with a complete U.S. withdrawal: It seems clear that they are willing to kill anybody in their way.

Our European friends have criticized Mr. Bush for his supposedly starkly moralistic, black-and-white view of the world: with us or with the terrorists. As far as starkness is concerned, Mr. Bush has nothing going on next to the insurrectionists in Iraq: You are either with the jihad or the jihad will kill you.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush had a good week at the United Nations, with his unanimous Security Council resolution blessing the interim government, and his June summit meetings are off to an adequate start. What the flurry of diplomacy is most likely to prove, mind you, is not that “multilateralism works,” much less that multilateralism is essential, but that multilateralism doesn’t change a blessed thing when you are up against what Iraq is up against. I have said it before and say it again: No amount of better postwar planning would have prevented the insurgency. That’s life, and we have to deal with it.

Every time Mr. Bush’s job-approval rating has gone down over the past three years, Democrats have greeted the news as welcome proof that the American people have finally figured him out. This has left them unprepared when Mr. Bush’s ratings go up again. It strikes me as highly unlikely that Mr. Bush is going to lose his grip on political viability, as Democrats have long been hoping.

What then? Well, that’s where things get strange. Truly: Is this election going to be about anything other than the incumbent? At the moment, it doesn’t look like either party really thinks so.

OK, polls tell us Democrats selected John Kerry mainly based on his electability. But seriously: What is he for? I don’t mean this in a sarcastic fashion, in the sense of “he never met an issue he couldn’t take both sides on.” Nor do I mean that he is incapable of generating positions on issues, indeed often rather nuanced positions on issues. I mean, what is the burning urgency underlying his aspiration to the presidency? What does he want to do? Where is it that he and he alone can take the country? What problem do we have that it is Mr. Kerry’s mission to solve?

Or is the only answer to that last question simply “George W. Bush”? The madness in the papers over the past week about the idea of Republican Sen. John McCain as the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party is illustrative. Were Democrats really entertaining the possibility of forgoing the vice presidency in pursuit of their platonic ideal of the perfect anti-Bush ticket?

Meanwhile, on Mr. Bush’s side, there is the fascinating question of whether the incumbent, who is currently about as politically overextended as you can get – thanks to Iraq, is actually going to make a case for a second Bush term based on what might occur during it. The option of a Ronald Reagan 1984-style “morning in America” re-election campaign is out, once again thanks to the complexity that is Iraq. Which leaves us with “stay the course.” That may make a certain amount of sense in relation to Iraq – but otherwise, what exactly is “the course”?

On one side, “Four more years!” Of what? On the other, “Re-Defeat Bush.” Mr. Kerry has a hard time getting a mention even on pro-Kerry bumper stickers. So it is that America is doubly blessed, in that there is no problem that would not be solved simply by Mr. Bush’s defeat or, in the alternative, by his re-election.