President John Adams was denied a second term in the election of 1800. His son, John Quincy Adams, was defeated for re-election in 1828. President George H.W. Bush was defeated after his first term in 1992. The most recent Gallup poll shows Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) leading President George W. Bush by 12 percentage points.
When the Democratic Party seemed determined to give the Republicans the gift of nominating Howard Dean, it was certain that George W. Bush would win the 2004 election and allow the Bush family to succeed where the only other father and son to serve in the White House had failed. The Democrats have decided to run a campaign rather than throw a tantrum, however. The election will be seriously contested and, probably, close.
Close shouldn't surprise us, because the evidence that the country is evenly divided stacks up high. You have to go back four elections, to 1988, to find a presidential candidate winning a majority of the popular vote. Republicans have maintained very narrow majorities in the House of Representatives since 1994, and in the Senate as well (except for the Jeffords interregnum), but the popular vote for all congressional candidates has been very close to 50-50 for four straight elections. Three of the six presidential elections from 1964 to 1984 were 60-40 landslides; none since has been so lopsided, and the prospect of a similar blowout is not in the cards for '04 or the foreseeable future.
It's important to keep the bad numbers for President Bush in perspective. As the anchor once said on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update": "Polls show that 96 percent of Americans say that if the election were held today…they'd be really, really surprised." Most voters won't concentrate on the nominees until much closer to the November election. John Kerry gains all the advantages, in the polls taken now, of not being George Bush, but suffers none of the disadvantages of being John Kerry. Those disadvantagesevery dubious vote and utterancewill be brought to the public's attention over the coming months.
Still, it is noteworthy that simply not being George W. Bush should be such an advantage. Despite the ways President Bush has tried to avoid the political mistakes of his father, the DNA can be resisted only so far. The Clinton presidency virtually erased the distinction between politics and governance, bringing the nation the "permanent campaign." Both Bush presidencies, by contrast, function at the opposite extreme: politics is about governing and governing, especially for the first president with an M.B.A., is about management. Rhetoric is off to the side, a necessary chore one must perform. Both Bush administrations have been slack about laying out, directly and insistently, the arguments for their actions. Both have let their political opponents' characterizations of their programs and motives go unchallenged in a way the Clinton war room, with its determination to dominate every news cycle, never would.
For all the talk that George W. Bush is more of a conservativemore of a Reaganitethan his father, both have tried, like Richard Nixon before them, to placate Democrats and liberal intellectuals in a way Ronald Reagan never did. None of the bouquets are ever put in vases; the scorn of liberals for a Republican who dares to show up for his inauguration is never diminished. Nixon's expansion of the Great Society programs won him nothing. Nor did George H.W. Bush's violation of his "no new taxes" pledge. Nor has the increase in federal spending on education, nor the addition of prescription-drug coverage to Medicare, nor the proposals to relax immigration laws caused a single Democratic politician or editorialist to say that George W. Bush might not be such a bad president after all.
Like his father before him, George W. Bush impressed most observers as a man who sought and won the presidency more out of a desire to be something than to do something. Neither Bush presidency seemed, at first, to be about anything. Within their first years both men had their reason for being in office defined for them: George H.W. Bush by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and George W. Bush by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The first President Bush tried, but failed, to define America's place in a post-Cold War world. No one ever really figured out what the "new world order" was, or why the American people should resist their impulse, after half a century of resisting the Soviet Union, to take a breather from world leadership.
Whatever the political limitations of the first President Bush, it says astounding and troubling things about the American electorate's capacity for fecklessness that he should have received only 37 percent of the popular vote in 1992. Even as the people were voting, the country was emerging from a mild recession, the nation was at peace, and Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait had been forcefully and skillfully repulsed. That one of out every five voters, in those circumstances, would pull the lever for a certified loon like Ross Perot still startles.
George W. Bush will face a clean one-on-one contest against a Democratic opponent. However it turns out, the election will and should be a referendum on the incumbent's handling of the biggest challenge posed to him and the nation. If the people believe that unprecedented vigilance remains necessary to thwart the unprecedented danger from Islamist fanatics, then Bush will win. The idea that September 11 was an anomaly, a one-time event whose repercussions have stopped, might take hold. One of the biggest gaps in public opinion surveys is the advantage Republicans have over Democrats on the question of who can keep the country strong. Only if people come to believe that being strong is nice but not urgent, as they did in 1992, will Bush join his father as a one-term president.