Saturday, July 24, 2004
July 25, 2004 New York Times - What's the Presidential Tipping Point?
By MICHAEL ORESKES
N presidential elections much is made of the power of incumbency. Who but the president can order up an aircraft carrier for a speaker's platform? But there are perils, too, as George W. Bush is finding. Because when you are the incumbent the election is, fundamentally, about you.
On this summer weekend, jammed between the harsh report of the 9/11 commission and the nomination of John Kerry at the Democratic convention, Mr. Bush finds himself in the same difficult place as Harry S. Truman in 1948 and Jimmy Carter in 1980: an incumbent facing a dubious electorate that could tip either way.
"At some point, politicians can step over an amorphous line that separates good or questionable judgment from inexcusably arrogant, outrageous or incompetent behavior," said Professor Jeffery A. Smith, an historian at the University of Wisconsin and the author of "American Presidential Elections: Trust and the Rational Voter." "That shatters trust. Democracy is built on perceptions of trustworthiness. We bond with politicians who tell us they like us and are like us, but their images and stories can be built up and torn down by what they actually do. If they disappoint, they may be discarded if the alternatives don't look worse."
Confidence and trust are fragile things in any relationship, no less between a president and voters. Voters still rate Mr. Bush fairly well on the big question of fighting terrorism. But support for the war in Iraq has been sliding, particularly since the killings of American security guards who were burned and hung from a bridge for the world to see. When Mr. Bush launched the war last year, three-quarters of the country approved. This month, in the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll, nearly 6 of 10 potential voters disapproved.
A president's overall standing generally holds up longer than support on any specific issue or attribute. Support for the Vietnam War declined for several years before Lyndon B. Johnson's overall support began eroding. The 1968 election was already under way before Johnson realized the depth of his problems and withdrew from the race for re-election.
For Mr. Bush, the country is about evenly divided on approval of his presidency, according to the latest poll. But there are some ominous signs that Mr. Bush is beginning to suffer from a Johnson-style "credibility gap" after sending the country to war to root out weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda, and being unable to prove either one. When asked by The New York Times and CBS News in June whether Mr. Bush was being completely honest about the war in Iraq, 20 percent of voters said he was mostly lying and 59 percent said he was hiding something. Only 18 percent thought he was telling the entire truth.
The question for Mr. Bush is how damaged is his bond with the voters? Has he tipped into a negative zone from which he cannot recover? Or can he win a second term?
"The bond can break, and in Bush's case the bond has broken for some previous supporters," said Thomas E. Patterson, a professor of government and the press at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "However, presidential support is based on multiple influences - including partisanship. It took a long time, for example, for certain groups of Americans to conclude in 1973-74 that Nixon had to go. Bush will have a lot of trouble regaining those that have become deeply dissatisfied with his leadership. But I don't have a sense yet that he's lost so many early backers that he's a goner."
The race is not so much too close to call, as too soon to call. Of the 52 presidential elections since the first in 1796, slightly more than half have involved incumbent presidents, a special dynamic. When an incumbent seeks another term, voters make a threshold calculation, students of elections say. "The basic issue is, does the president have the confidence of the voters on the big questions," said Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, who has been polling about presidents for a generation.
Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bill Clinton in 1996 passed this referendum. The voters judged that they were trustworthy to deliver the proverbial peace and prosperity. Their opponents, Walter S. Mondale and Robert Dole, never got a serious look.
But when voters have enough doubts about a sitting president they begin to consider the alternative. That is not where an incumbent wants to be "with little over 100 days until an historic election," as Mr. Bush himself described the ticking clock last week.
An incumbent has two choices in this situation. He can work to repair strained bonds with crucial voters or he can try to tear down his opponents plausibility as a replacement. Mr. Bush and his campaign are doing both.
Mr. Bush was reassuring supporters Thursday night that he had been hitting the hustings hard in crucial swing states. The president's campaign schedule is just one example of the extraordinarily early - and expensive - start to this presidential race.
History shows that politically wounded presidents can come back. Certainly, Truman in 1948 had been counted out by nearly everyone, including the headline writers at The Chicago Tribune. But he campaigned relentlessly and in the final days turned the race into a choice between his common-man image and the buttoned-up Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey.
The 1980 election played out in almost the exact opposite way. The economy at home and the hostage crisis in Iran left Jimmy Carter in trouble. But with eight days to go the election was still close. Then Mr. Reagan and Mr. Carter stood side by side in debate, and voters decided Mr. Reagan was a legitimate alternative. Only then did a horse race turn into a rout.
History, with apologies to Marx and Hegel, is instructive, not determining. Of those 28 elections involving an incumbent president, the incumbent was turned out of office in nine. But only two of those elections involved an incumbent who came to office despite losing the popular vote. In both the incumbent lost a bid for reelection.
But neither John Quincy Adams nor Benjamin Harrison went through anything like what Mr. Bush has been through in office. Thomas H. Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 commission, said he could find no historical comparison - not even Pearl Harbor - to the impact on the country of the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Politically speaking, the shock of the attacks seemed to wipe away the debate about Mr. Bush's legitimacy. His support soared to historic highs as the nation rallied around him. In that sense, most Americans "voted for" Mr. Bush in the fall of 2001.
Some critics still do raise the legitimacy question. Michael Moore opens his documentary polemic against Mr. Bush with a reprise of the 2000 election. But the question that voters seem to be wrestling with now is not whether Mr. Bush is a legitimate president but whether he is a trustworthy one.