Ballot Box

Is Dean Toast?

Saddam’s capture doesn’t guarantee Bush’s re-election.

Is Howard Dean toast?

That’s what pundits are suggesting, Republicans are hoping, and Democrats are fretting in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s capture. Dean surged to the front of the Democratic presidential pack by opposing the war in Iraq. As the postwar turned bloody, expensive, and stagnant, it looked like a brilliant bet. But this morning, reporters and analysts seem convinced that the latest card drawn from the deck leaves him with a losing hand.

I haven’t seen such certainty about an incumbent party keeping the White House since September 2000, when I called George W. Bush “toast.” I was overconfident then for the same reason others are overconfident now: We forget how quickly people forget. Problems, once solved, disappear. Voters take for granted what has been accomplished. Each success, initially framed by the president as an end in itself, is reframed by the challenger as a means to a further, unfulfilled end. Bush ought to know that this can be done to him in 2004. It’s what he did to Al Gore in 2000.

In 2000, Bush was running against a vice president whose administration had led the country during an unparalleled era of peace and prosperity. Contrary to the dire predictions of Republicans in 1993, the economy under Gore and Bill Clinton was booming, and the government had wiped out its deficits and accumulated a surplus. Did Bush give Gore credit for these successes? Of course not. He dissolved them into history. He changed the question from what Gore had done for the economy and the surplus to what Gore had done with them.

“Prosperity can be a tool in our hands used to build and better our country,” Bush argued in his speech to the Republican convention in August 2000. “For eight years the Clinton-Gore administration has coasted through prosperity. … America has a strong economy and a surplus. We have the public resources … to strengthen Social Security and repair Medicare. But this administration, during eight years of increasing need, did nothing. They had their moment. They have not led. We will.”

That’s how you beat a successful administration. You dissolve the successes into history and ask what the administration has accomplished with those successes. You move the goalpost.

Dean seems to understand. “Our troops are to be congratulated on carrying out this mission with the skill and dedication we have come to know of them,” he said this morning. “This development provides an enormous opportunity to set a new course and take the American label off the war. We must do everything possible to bring the U.N., NATO, and other members of the international community back into this effort. Now that the dictator is captured, we must also accelerate the transition from occupation to full Iraqi sovereignty.”

Notice how Dean repeats every element of the 2000 Bush approach. Somebody other than the president—in this case, our troops—gets the credit. The mission becomes history. Capturing Saddam becomes a means to a more difficult end: getting the United Nations into Iraq, and getting the United States out.

Will this strategy work for Dean as it did for Bush? In some ways, it will be harder. Military success, unlike economic growth, is a direct result of administration policy. It’s much harder to deny Bush credit for capturing Saddam than it was to deny Clinton and Gore credit for the boom. Furthermore, Bush never equivocated as to whether economic growth was good. Dean’s comment last April that he “supposed” Saddam’s ouster was a good thing—sure to be replayed in Republican ads—will make it harder for him to put Saddam’s capture behind him and focus attention on what to do next.

But other factors suggest that the strategy can work again. A dictator’s removal is one of the easiest events to dissolve into history. When Saddam’s regime collapsed, Americans quickly forgot its horrors, lost interest, and began agitating to get our troops out. Ask Winston Churchill about gratitude for winning wars. In this war, the stakes for the United States were far lower, and one “Mission Accomplished” moment—Bush’s victory speech in April—has already been discredited. If Baghdad’s collapse didn’t nail down the war as a definitive success, there’s no guarantee that Saddam’s capture will do so, either. The goalpost has moved once and can move again.

In his address to the nation this afternoon, Bush conceded, “The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq. We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East.” Indeed, shortly after Saddam’s capture, a bombing at a police office near Baghdad killed 17 more Iraqis. And what if interrogations of Saddam, like interrogations of his henchmen, yield no more evidence of weapons of mass destruction? U.N. weapons inspectors are already saying that the United States has produced almost no new evidence of WMD since occupying Iraq. Could the capture of Saddam—and with it, the exposure of the last dry hole in the WMD hunt—end up discrediting the war?

It’s clear from interviews Dean gave to reporters Saturday (written up in Sunday’s Washington Post and New York Times) that he’s repositioning himself as a more hawkish candidate in the general election. He was planning to claim that position tomorrow in a major foreign policy speech. Now he’ll have maximum attention as he does so. Bush’s aides would be unwise to assume that Dean can’t make their latest triumph vanish into history. They should know.