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Will Bush's Popularity Last After the War?

April 15, 2003 |
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So what are George W. Bush's re-election prospects? The question came up last week when White House political guru Karl Rove predicted a "close, competitive" contest next year. Rove is playing the expectations game, of course, but a look back at history suggests he might also be right.

To be sure, Bush looks unbeatable now. His approval rating hovers around 70 percent, and he beats any hypothetical Democratic challenger by a 2 to 1 margin. Nonetheless, Rove is wise to counsel against "irrational exuberance" among Republicans because the political ghost that looms over all military victors in democratic countries is that of Winston Churchill.

Having led Britain to a triumph in World War II, Churchill was defeated at the polls just two months after Germany surrendered. English voters were grateful for his leadership in wartime, but wanted something much different -- the then-socialist Labour Party -- for peacetime.

And closer to home, Bush's own father, the 41st president -- who achieved the highest approval ratings in history after his military victory over Iraq in 1991 -- suffered a similarly Churchillian fate in 1992. Which might explain why Rove went out of his way to tell his New Orleans audience, "We will not raise taxes." That, of course, is yet another echo of the earlier President Bush, who shattered his own re-election coalition by breaking his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge.

Still, the incumbent president is coming to his own kind of grief on taxes. Congressional Democrats are divided over the Iraq war issue, but they are united on the tax issue. Working with just two renegade Republicans in the Senate, they seem to have succeeded in cutting by more than half the size of Bush's proposed tax cut, from $726 billion over the next decade to $350 billion.

And the same polls that show Bush's presidency riding high show his domestic policy riding low. According to an Associated Press survey, 61 percent of Americans agree with the statement that it's "better to hold off on tax cuts to avoid making budget deficits worse and ensure there is adequate money for the war with Iraq."

War with Iraq. Aye, there's the rub, working for and against the president. National-security policy has been the key to his popularity over the past 18 months, but it's also been the stick in the spokes of his domestic-policy wheel. And here's where the younger Bush could be misreading the public mood on tax matters, just as his father did 13 years ago.

Since 9/11, the mood of the country has shifted, from private to public, away from wealth creation and conspicuous consumption toward sterner values of solidarity and sacrifice. If the heroes of the '90s were entrepreneurs and dot-commers, the heroes of the '00s are firefighters and GIs.

The president has stoked this mood, appearing regularly to rally the troops -- and the voters. That's proven to be a great plan for mobilizing support for liberating the oppressed people of Iraq, but not such a good plan for seeking to liberate oppressed corporations in the United States.

From a strict policy point of view, a strong case can be made for the entirety of Bush's tax cut, including the elimination of the double taxation of dividends. Indeed, it's common sense that reducing the tax burden on investment capital increases the amount of investment capital -- and eventually, of jobs and growth.

But from a political point of view, as the polls show, most Americans don't support cutting taxes for the investor class at home when the soldier class in Iraq is under fire.

In 1918, another British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, summed up the public mood in the wake of victory in World War I. "What is our task?" he asked rhetorically. "To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in." For Britain in the years that followed, the proper celebration of its homecoming heroes required a continuation of high tax rates and additional domestic spending. He remained in office until 1922, and is still an icon of British history.

Bush, of course, makes the argument that the pie needs to be expanded through tax cuts, not redistributed through more government activity. Can he confound historical precedent? The political specters of Churchill and Lloyd George -- and his own father -- will be watching closely.

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