The Washington Times

There was one consistently amusing poll question asked in the run-up to the 2004 presidential primary season. It asked people whether they would vote for George W. Bush or the Democratic nominee for president. More people said they would prefer the Democrat.    

Democrats tended to see this as very good news: Any Democrat at all would have a good chance of taking down Mr. Bush. But the real story, which some Republicans were able to figure out as they were nervously looking on the bright side, was that Mr. Bush was Mr. Bush, a known commodity with regard to both his strengths and weaknesses, whereas the “Democrat” in the poll was an empty vessel into which people could pour whatever mixture of qualities they chose. Crankiness with and disapproval of Mr. Bush were thus able to obtain a full venting without that most essential element of politics: the question of “compared to what?”     

Once you replaced the phantom Democrat with a real, live, flesh-and-bones candidate, you would have an entirely different question. The point then would be that the candidate would be not only “a Democrat” but also an experienced politician, which is to say a politician with a record susceptible to both positive and negative interpretation. This character would also be the one who emerged the winner from the Democratic Party primary process, which is to say having surmounted the challenge of dealing with the party’s left wing, possibly by pandering to it. And of course, such a one would have to take positions on actual issues.    

In short, exit “a Democrat” stage right, enter Sen. John Kerry. While Mr. Bush, bag and baggage, might be an impossible sale to make with a majority of voters against “a Democrat,” such an election has never taken and will never take place in American politics. Against Mr. Kerry, selling Mr. Bush was entirely plausible.     

True, it’s fashionable, especially among Democrats, to blame Mr. Kerry personally for blowing a winnable election. And one can point to any number of choices he or his advisors could have made differently. But a better question is: Who among all the Democrats who might have sought the nomination against Mr. Bush in 2004 would have made Mr. Bush’s recourse to comparative judgment less damaging? And what was the likelihood of such a real-life Democrat winning the party’s nomination? I think the roster of potential candidates plausible on both the above counts was vanishingly small.     

But there may be developing an interesting 2006 corollary to the seeming paradox of Mr. Bush’s weakness against “a Democrat,” but comparativestrength against, so to speak, “the” Democrat. Mr. Bush put himself forward starting in early September as the point man for keeping Americans safe from terrorists. He re-emphasized what he sees as the
Iraq war’s centrality in that cause, and he demanded of Congress legislation ratifying his administration’s view of how to handle detainees and conduct surveillance. In general, he sought to refocus attention on national security, presumably his and his party’s strongest suit. It should go without saying that these decisions were made with a cold eye focused on the fast-approaching congressional elections.     

Now, to the extent that Mr. Bush’s persistently low job-approval rating was a drag on Republican candidates, it makes perfect sense for him to come out swinging in an attempt to improve his standing and correspondingly that of the GOP congressional candidates. And, indeed, his job-approval ratings did perk up a bit.     

But paradoxically, in stepping out as he did, Mr. Bush seemed to be setting up a contrast between himself and “a Democrat.” Which is to say, in the Republican narrative, if you as a voter want to embolden the terrorists worldwide by folding in Iraq; give dangerous terrorists a chance to go free on legal technicalities; forgo the kind of interrogation techniques that have saved American lives; and say it’s no business of the government to look into people in the United States who are on their cell phones with members of al Qaeda abroad, then you should, uh, well, come to think of it, what exactly should you do?     

Vote Democrat? But Mr. Bush himself isn’t running for anything against “a Democrat,” let alone any particular Democrat, at the present moment. That al Qaeda-coddler of his conjurings, insofar as congressional elections are concerned, is a straw man three times over. First, Mr. Bush is still going to be president after the 2006 election, even if Congress turns Democratic. Second, flesh-and-blood Democrats have defenses of their own against the generic attack Mr. Bush has launched, if they need them, as well as the ability to draw contrasts of their own. Third, the connection between the outcome of any particular local congressional contest and the victory or defeat of al Qaeda and its ilk is, shall we say, a bit tenuous.     

Congress was not Mr. Bush’s to hold onto by asserting himself because it was not his to lose, except in the sense that the actions of the administration form the backdrop for the local contests between real, live candidates.