The Doom of President Bush

December 4th, 2003

Last night I attended a meeting of supporters of Howard Dean. There I learned an interesting little tidbit that lends strong support to a claim that I have been making for some time now: that Bush is certain to lose the election next year.

I first made this assertion in February of 2003. Once it became clear that Bush was determined to attack Iraq, I knew it was all over for him. My friends were astounded and skeptical of my prognostication. Support for the President was at an all-time high; the nation was still galvanized by the atrocities of 9/11, and anything seen to combat terrorism was looked upon with approbation.

It seems to me that political analysis in America mirrors business planning. There are no long-term time horizons; the only thing that matters is the bottom line this next quarter. We can handle the quarter after that, well, next quarter. In the same way, people seem to judge political dynamics based on the current situation, with no appreciation for historical dynamics. They read the polls of February 2003 and concluded that Bush was a winner.

Of course, the election wasn’t held in February of 2003; it will be held in November of 2004, and that is the only time when the polls really mean anything. So what we have to do is figure out what the polls will look like then, not now. This requires some fairly simple historical analysis.

The first concerns war. The most basic lesson of war is "Nobody ever wins". Consider the wars that America fought in the 20th Century; let’s list them in terms of how they were perceived a few years after they ended, on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being great public satisfaction, and 1 being total disillusionment. I shall include the minor military actions of the last 25 years as well.

World War I: 3
World War II: 5
Korean War: 3
Dominican Republic: 3
VietNam: 1
Iran Hostage Rescue: 1
Panama: 3
Libya: 4
Lebanon: 2
Grenada: 3
Gulf War: 5
Somalia: 1

Now look at the patterns. There were only two wars that enjoyed full public support: World War II and the Gulf War. In both of those wars, we were responding to unprovoked acts of aggression, and we successfully defeated the aggressors. Most other military actions enjoyed only public acquiescence: the public didn’t think they were mistakes but people weren’t enthusiastic. But a failure to achieve our objectives always led to great public disillusionment. VietNam, the Iran Hostage Rescue attempt, Lebanon, and Somalia all left a sour taste in the mouths of the public. We lost lives and prestige and accomplished nothing.

The moral of the story here is that the American public, over the long run, has a lot of common sense about the use of military power. In the short term, they can be swept up in jingoistic foolishness, but after the dust settles, they compare the cost with the results, and judge accordingly.

Let’s bring this to bear on the Iraq war. The Bush people managed to convince the American public that this would be a clean war: we charge in, get rid of Saddam, and breeze out, with a minimum of casualties and costs. The American people believed this nonsense because they are wont to trust their leaders. But you can’t fool the basic laws of human conflict.

The Bush people claimed that the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms. They were mostly right, but what they should have said was that
most of the Iraqi people would welcome us with open arms. But any historian could tell you some of the Iraqi people would resent and resist our occupation of their country. From there, it’s a downhill path. The resisters stage a few ambushes, a few bombings, and the occupiers respond with increased security and stricter controls on the population. Now, soldiers are not the most tactful, sensitive people in the world, and they make lousy diplomats. The politicians can be saying all the right things in their comfortable aeries, but on the streets of Baghdad, it’s the scared kid from Iowa who shoves some recalcitrant Iraqi cab driver to the ground and makes one more enemy for America. If 1% of the Iraqi population resisted us at the start, the defensive reactions of our troops will soon increase that number to 2%. We start house-to-house searches for weapons, stop people at random on the street, start carrying out strip searches, invade mosques looking for bomb materials, and so on. It’s a viscious circle here; each time we crack down, we just make more enemies, which forces us to crack down even harder. The end result has to be a full-blown guerrilla war with the population. Of course, our efforts to pacify the place with improved civil services and the creation of a native government will help considerably -- but it is unlikely, in a place as intrinsically unstable as Iraq, that those improvements will move faster than the centrifugal forces.

The end result was predictable before the war even started: we’d find ourselves stuck in a quagmire. Thirty years ago it was VietNam, and today it is Iraq. We’ll eventually muddle through to some sort of halfway acceptable resolution, but it will take more time, more money, and more blood, than anybody had imagined in the glorious first days of the war. That’s always the way it is with war. The boys marched off to World War I to cheering crowds and promises of "home before Christmas". The Civil War began with assurances on both sides that a few sharp battles would cause the other side to fold. Here we go again.

We can be absolutely certain that, by November of 2004, there will still be Americans in Iraq, there will still be violence, people will still be dying, and the whole affair will be broadly seen as a botched job. If we’re lucky, we’ll have removed most of our troops, in which case, Iraq will be rather like Afghanistan or Somalia: an anarchic mess that everybody will blame on us. If we’re not so lucky, then our troops will still be there and the flow of body bags home will be continuous.

Moreover, we can also be certain that the costs of the war will continue to drag down the economy. Wars don’t come for free and money doesn’t go on trees. So far we have spent about $167 billion on this war: some $80 billion just to fight the war, and another $87 billion for the ongoing costs of the occupation. And those are just the direct costs. That’s $167 billion that won’t be spent on things like schools, roads, health care, and so forth. To put it another way, that’s about $600 for every American. Now, if you take $600 away from every single American, that makes a pretty big hit on their overall standard of living. Of course, the Administration is playing financial games by folding it all into the national debt. Most Americans can’t see the debt, so they don’t mind. The problem is, over the long run, that hurts the economy just as badly, if not more so. All that debt sucks capital out of the investment sector, which means that there’s less money to create new businesses with. Remember the huge tax reductions that Bush pushed through Congress last spring? Those were ostensibly to encourage investment. Unfortunately, most of the extra capital freed up that way just gets pulled right back out again by government debt. Even worse, that debt weakens the dollar abroad, which means that fewer foreigners are willing to invest in American assets. Foreigners have been financing this country for the last few years. If they lose confidence in a dollar that’s overburdened with debt, they’ll take their investment money elsewhere, and our economy will suffer even more.

The result will be an economy that just doesn’t recover from its current slump. As I write this, there are a few indicators that the economy is rallying, and short-term thinkers all over the country are pouncing on this factoid to proclaim the success of Bush economics. But the long-term dynamics all point downward. Sure, we might do fine this quarter, but the election is three quarters away. The international markets have grown more efficient in the last decade and they’re quicker to respond to poor economic dynamics. I won’t attempt precise predictions, as the economy is a wondrously complicated beast. All you can do is look at the fundamental forces driving the economy and make long-term predictions. And the fundamental forces at work are all negative. This economy may have a few up-blips, but the general performance over the next decade will surely be poor.

This is not to say that we are doomed to a permanent depression. The American economy remains a powerful beast, and it can claw its way upward even with the weight of the huge national debt on its shoulders. It’s just that it won’t be able to perform at anywhere near its normal level. We can kiss goodbye the days of 5% growth. I don’t think we’ll even average 3% growth. I think that, over the next five or ten years, we’ll experience growth rates in the 2% range. That’s pretty sorry performance.

One iron rule of politics the world over is that the three most important factors in political stability are the economy, the economy, and the economy. As candidate Clinton said, "It’s the economy, stupid!" Very roughly speaking, for the last 50 years, the threshold of political stability has been 3% growth. If the economy grows by more than 3%, people are happy and the government is popular. If it falls below 2%, people are unhappy with the government and it is likely to fall. A number of factors can adjust these numbers: war and government repression are two common sources.

However, the American people have grown accustomed to higher growth rates in the last twenty years and they are likely to find 3% growth rates unsatisfactory. And the 2% growth that we are likely to see is a deathblow to any hopes of Bush may have of re-election.

Then there’s the assault on civil liberties. The Bush administration’s behavior here is patently unconstitutional. The Fifth Amendent to the Constitution flatly states (I remove some of the extraneous phraseology): "No person... shall be deprived of liberty... without due process of law." It’s pretty clear: you can’t throw people in jail without giving them their day in court. Yet that is precisely what the Bush administration has done in a number of cases. There is absolutely no question as to the illegality of these actions. They are slowly working their way up through the court system, where the administration is arguing that the courts have no jurisdiction over the executive. This astounding claim is certain to fail in the Supreme Court; since the earliest days of our republic, the Supreme Court has always held that it is the final arbitrer of legal questions. The administration will lose, most likely in June when the final batch of Supreme Court decisions are handed down. The stinging rebuke that they will surely deliver to the administration will only serve to diminish Bush’s moral authority.

Put all these factors together and you’ve got an ironclad case for the electoral defeat of Bush in 2004. But last night, I discovered something that sealed it in my eyes. There were only 13 people at this little meeting of Dean supporters, but then this is in a community of only about 2,000 people. What struck me was the demographics of the group. I expected fiery young students, but the youngest person in attendance was in her forties, and the average age was mid-fifties. So I asked the group, how many people here have previously been politically active? Not one. How many people have contributed to political campaigns in the past? Not one. These are not your typical political activists. These are normal people, left-leaning, to be sure, but not fiery or starry-eyed. They’re pragmatic, realistic, and they’re scared. The behavior of the Bush administration terrifies them; they all see the Constitution itself under threat. And they are, for the first time in their lives, determined to do something to stop him.

These people are the doom of President Bush.

[Afterward, 2010: Boy, was I wrong! Of course, my track record isn’t much worse than that of the professional pundits...]