Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Iowa and New Hampshire and...

James Skillen


January 12, 2004

The campaign for the presidency seems to have been going on forever. Yet officially it is only the Democratic state caucuses and primaries that are about to begin. Of course, President Bush has been campaigning ever since he took office in 2001, and since he will not have to contend with a Republican challenger for the nomination, all the advantages are his.

Come to think of it, what chance does any Democrat have against the Goliath-machine of the Bush campaign? The president has all the power and wealth of incumbency; he has raised tens of millions of dollars for the campaign, most of which will not have to be spent in the early going; and he has Karl Rove, the strategic genius.

On the other hand, how could any Democratic nominee fail to unseat Bush? Al Gore got more popular votes than Bush in 2000; a significant percentage of Democrats not only opposes Bush but despises him; and a quick scan of the newspaper shows that despite Bush's popularity in the polls he has weaknesses for a Democrat to exploit.

Under President Bush, for example, the country has jumped off the budget cliff into deficits and a mounting national debt never seen before. The president has disappointed conservatives by increasing federal spending and the size of the federal government. The foreign trade deficit is expanding. Environmental protections are weakening. Anti-Americanism is growing throughout the world. Iraq has not yet been stabilized; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems farther from resolution now than when Bush entered office; and Egypt's authoritarian government, which we support with $2 billion a year, is nowhere near ready to heed the president's call for democracy. The U.S. has not yet caught or stopped Osama bin Laden, and there is growing legal opposition to the government's treatment of prisoners held since 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. Tax breaks have gone mostly to the rich, and the modest, quirky new Medicare drug benefit will not even kick in until 2006.

President Bush should be a pushover come November, don't you think?

The Democrat's problem, however, is that they are entering the campaign using the same old political strategies and tactics. And none of them will be able to outfox Karl Rove. No matter how unhappy one group of Americans or another might be with President Bush's position on this or that issue, Rove has coordinated the Bush team's decisions so that Democrats, Independents, and disaffected Republicans will not all be able to coalesce in agreement around one of the Democratic candidates. Many opponents of Bush on the Iraq war will find Howard Dean's tax proposals unacceptable. Some opponents of Bush's environmental policies will reject Dick Gephardt's trade and labor proposals. Some opponents of Bush's big spending on education and Medicare will fear the even bigger spending of a John Kerry.

The only way a Democrat can beat Bush in November is by putting together a coherent, integrated, and balanced program for America's future that relates tax policy to spending policy, foreign policies to domestic policies, and the short term to the long term. Such a program would, by contrast, show up the weaknesses and inconsistencies of Bush's presidency as a whole. In addition, the candidate capable of pulling this off will have to begin to draw Democrat after Democrat onto his or her team, including the Democratic congressional leadership.

Sound unlikely and perhaps even preposterous to you? That's because American politics adds up to little more than personality contests and symbolic issue chatter. And behind the scenes, those with money and power quietly work their will on this issue or that, with little concern about the country's long-term coherence or sustainability.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”