A big reason that it's harder to run against Bush '04 than against Bush '92 is, paradoxically, the fact that what we're charging Bush '04 with is so appalling: We're saying that he shed U.S. soldiers' blood in an utterly unnecessary war while pulling resources from the fight he should have been fighting -- that he took his eye off the ball and effectively suspended the fight against the mass murderers who should have been our prime target.
People can accept that their president, their commander in chief, their daddy, might be, you know, a bit of a screw-up -- that he might be tooling around cluelessly in a cigarette boat while the economy tanks. It's harder for most people to accept that he might duck into the Situation Room and send soldiers to die in the wrong country.
A crummy economy is frustrating and infuriating but not deeply frightening; in truly frightening times, an awful lot of us just want to believe that the guy in the Oval Office must know what he's doing and must be giving it his best shot.
Bush stumbled through September 11, 12, and 13, 2001, and we all noticed it -- but when he successfully delivered one effective sound bite through a bullhorn at Ground Zero on the Friday after the attacks, he was hailed as the second coming of Churchill; a merely competent speech a week later was praised as soaring and inspirational. Those three days when Rudolph Giuliani seemed like the leader our president should have been are now all but banished from the official narrative of what Bush did after 9/11 -- the official line is that we are grateful for Bush's steady leadership after 9/11. ("Don't you think he handled himself and hit all the right notes after 9/11, showed strength, got us through it, you don't give him credit for that?" --Lesley Stahl to Richard Clarke on 60 Minutes.)
Remember the situation when Kerry was starting to top Bush in the polls: The Madrid bombings hadn't happened yet; Iraq was clearly a quagmire that was continuing to cost lives of Americans and others -- but none of this was truly frightening to stateside Americans. It seemed to Americans that the violence was "over there." Now we have al-Qaeda back in business and scare headlines about possible Hamas attacks on the U.S.
Even if we weren't starting to get scared again, Richard Clarke's charges would remind us of the days when we were deeply scared. That's why I don't think Clarke's book and the 60 Minutes interview will lead to much voter disillusionment: Fence-sitting voters just don't want to go there. They don't want to remember their fear and think that the guy with his hand on the tiller didn't know which way to steer the boat. They certainly don't want to think that now, when they're getting scared again. They'd prefer any other version of the story.
If America is actively frightened on election day 2004, I think Bush wins. The more frightened Amertica is, the bigger his margin of victory. Unless there's an unambiguous smoking gun tying the administration directly to whatever is making America afraid, I don't think Bush's failings and shortcomings will matter -- most Americans will cleave to him if they're afraid. We aren't the Spanish.
I hope the Kerry campaign proves me wrong. I'm afraid it will need to -- I expect at least an orange alert, if not war drums (Syria! Iran!), come October and November. And if terrorists do strike, bizarre as it may seem, I think Bush wins in a landslide.