If I were a Republican I’d be getting damned worried right now. Bush’s reelection, considered a sure thing just a month or two ago (for reasons I don’t understand) now looks dubious at best. His poll numbers haven’t completely collapsed, with his approval ratings hovering at or just above 50%. Looking at polling reports though, there is not much good news for the president. The American people seem to distrust his leadership as commander in chief, and he gets negative marks on the economy. The latter may improve as the economy improves, but even Republicans are figuring out that Iraq and the war on terrorism will be liabilities for Bush next year, not accomplishments.
Candidates usually ride a president’s coattails but there can be a downside to the phenomenon. When a president becomes unpopular it may hinder candidates who align themselves with the president. We’ve seen this phenomenon before. In 1992 many Republicans distanced themselves from George H.W. Bush as it became clear that the poor economy and the unemployment rate would sink his reelection.
One factor that may work in Bush’s favor this time around is the lack of a spoiler in the race. Ross Perot was the spoiler in 1992 and 1996 and arguably Clinton might not have won at all had Perot not entered the race. In 2000 the spoiler was Ralph Nader, running for the Green Party, who almost certainly caused Gore to lose the election. It is unlikely that the Green Party will field a candidate this time, and even if they do liberals learned their lesson in 2000 and will vote for a pragmatic Democrat in 2004.
What’s a good Republican to do who pragmatically wants to keep control of the White House and Congress but is worried that Bush’s unpopularity may cause them to lose both? Numerous fissures are appearing in the Republican ranks as they learn to say no to Bush. For example, Republicans learned to say “no more, thanks” to Bush’s outsourcing initiative. Senate Republicans said no to his request for $20B in grants to the Iraqi government, part of his $87 supplemental funding bill for Iraq. It seems likely that in conference Bush will get his way, but it’s a close call. Many Republicans are getting sick of following Bush’s lead, and have ideas of their own they want to promote.
John McCain, who has never felt particularly endeared to George W. Bush and who frequently joins the Democrats when he thinks it is right, is one of those astute Republicans who is questioning the president’s policies in Iraq. He is calling for more troops in Iraq, saying it is clear that the number is insufficient to deal with the increasing terrorism and attacks.
Like Wesley Clark, John McCain has sterling credentials and a reputation for pragmatism and honesty. He is no ideologue. Moreover, he has a demonstrated ability to attract independent and swing Democratic votes. John McCain is one of the few Republicans I respect. It is possible, although unlikely, that I might actually vote for him. He is the Howard Dean of the Republican Party and represents a more traditional Republican than the neo-conservatives who seem to run the show at the moment.
I have to think he is weighing his options for a possible challenge to Bush in the Republican primaries. Granted, he would be at a huge disadvantage in the money game and would be getting a very late start. But he has a lot of name recognition and he comes across as a positive alternative to the president.
My bet is McCain is quietly exploring his options right now. I’d not be surprised if sometime in November he makes an announcement. Much will depend on how events unfold between now and then. Looking at the situation in Iraq in particular it is hard to see how it will improve. It is almost guaranteed to continue to deteriorate and will likely peak during the primary season next year. I think we will continue to see Bush’s poll numbers slip. By early next year I expect his approval ratings to be in the mid 40s, and might well be lower.
While McCain is likely exploring his options, so are lots of other nervous Republicans. They aren’t necessarily as vested in George W. Bush as it might appear. They are far more interested in maintaining power than they are marching in lockstep behind him. McCain is the logical person to coalesce around. Smart Republican money could come his way rather quickly.