the 2004 election will be close

A report for Washington: I know many Democrats, and they all

seem highly pessimistic about 2004. They think that Karl Rove is a genius,

that Bush will coast to re-election because of the Iraq war, that Republicans

have enormous advantages in money and media support, that the country

is moving rightward, that the Democratic leadership is weak and divided—in

short, that we are headed for a landslide.

I dislike political prognostication and am generally not good at it.

(It seems to me that the important question is not who will win,

but what policies we should want to prevail.) Nevertheless, I cannot resist

observing that the future is completely unpredictable and that a Democrat

could be the one to win by a landslide in ’04. The economy will need

to improve quickly to get above the level that usually re-elects presidents

(3% annual growth). Surveys show very little support for the Bush economic

strategy if it is separated from his personal popularity. The stimulative

effects of the new budget are likely to be small, and the expected postwar

bounce has been modest. Iraq represents a genuine victory right now, which

no one should gainsay—but unfortunately for all of us, it could still

easily turn into a momentous disaster. Cutbacks at the state level are

going to remain a huge issue, and state leaders will have justifiable

reasons to blame Washington. If governors start accusing Bush of cutting

taxes at their expense, it could create a serious political problem for

him. (The $20 billion in aid to states that Congress just passed may inoculate

Bush against charges that he abandoned the states, so it very lucky for

him.) The Republicans are planning to use Sept. 11 politically, even choosing

New York City for their convention—a strategy that will backfire

if New Yorkers effectively protest the way that they have been mistreated

since 2001. (Or if, God forbid, we are attacked again.) The demographic

trends in states like Florida point the Democrats’ way, and they start

with a 2000 base that was bigger than Bush’s. The absence of serious third-party

competition from the left will help too. Even the media may be neutralized

if reporters shift, pack-like, from adulating Bush to criticizing him

once his popularity starts to slip for other reasons.

In short, this is a nonpartisan blog, but I wouldn’t bet a lot of money

on a Republican victory, even if I were a Republican.

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