Regime Change in 2004

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Al Gore
lost in 2000 because of the approximately 22,000 voters in New
Hampshire who voted for Ralph Nader. Bush won New Hampshire
by about 7,000 votes. Those four electoral votes were his margin
of victory. I have heard no one argue that if Nader had not
run, fewer than 15,000 of Nader’s voters would have voted for

The Republicans
did not steal the election in Florida. They and the Supreme
Court merely kept the networks’ TV anchorpersons from having
stolen it when they announced the results of Florida’s exit
polls — Gore has won! — as soon as the polls in Miami
closed, conveniently overlooking the fact that western Florida,
which was Bush country, was still voting because it was on Central
Standard Time. A sufficient number of Bush’s supporters there
gave up and didn’t go to the polls, so the election was close
enough to be contested.

anyone remembers either of these crucial aspects of the 2000
Presidential election.

The Democrats
blame Republican chicanery for their loss. They do not publicly
blame Nader, who was the real culprit. This resentment against
Bush has inserted an element of revenge into the next campaign.
Never underestimate revenge as a political motivation. Keeping
“them” out is every bit as powerful a political motive as getting
“us” in. Given the level of voter commitment generated by Presidential
candidates since Reagan, “accentuate the negative” is today
the strongest underlying motivation for electoral victory. “Stick
it to them!”

The Democrats
will not win the election in 2004. Bush will have to lose it.
I think he will. Here’s why. Most people don’t want to vote
for a loser, even if they vote secretly. This is why western
Florida’s Republicans did not go to the polls in full strength
in the final hour of the election. Instead of thinking, “I’m
going to go to the polls and vote for the right man, no matter
what,” they stayed home to watch the election results.


Bush has
squandered unprecedented worldwide support for America after
September 11. He can surely squander Republican voter support
between now and 2004. I am confident that he will do so. His
ratings as a wartime President will fall, short of a major terrorist
attack on American soil.

Bush is
at the high point now. He can only fall from here. The war is
just about over. The mess of post-war Iraq will get enough TV
air time so that the embedded journalists will report bad news.
Bad news sells except in wartime. The bad news has only just

The economic
costs of reconstructing Iraq will keep rising. Democrats will
get to complain publicly about cronyism in awarding the contracts.
This has already begun.

As Bush’s
numbers fall, support from Republicans on the fringes of the
Republican Party will falter. These are marginal supporters,
to be sure. Call them “western Floridians.” But in a closely
divided electorate, their votes are crucial.

Why will
Bush’s numbers fall? I suggest the following:

  1. The
    American economy will not recover.

  2. The
    stock market will not recover, and it may get worse.

  3. The
    U.S. budget deficit will get much worse.

  4. The
    foreign trade deficit will not improve.

  5. Bush
    will be perceived as having no solutions to the economy.

  6. A
    wartime President must not end the war more than a year
    before the election.

all of these reasons, Bush will be perceived as a politician in
trouble. Like sharks who smell blood in the water, the Democrats
will go on the attack. The more blood, the more frenzied the attacks.
There will be an escalation of criticism as his numbers fall:
a self-reinforcing process.

the Republicans control both houses of Congress, the Democrats
will be able to escape blame for the rotten economy. They will
play “pin the tail on the elephant.” Politics is mostly blame-shifting
anyway. Bush enjoys a majority in both houses. Only Eisenhower
had that advantage in the post-Hoover era, and only in the first
half of his first term.


Al Gore was even more boring. But Gore is gone. Bush is a poor
public speaker. Only the adrenaline of terrorism and war raised
his speeches to the level of mediocre. This adrenaline rush
actually put together his syntax. But unless there is a major
terrorist attack on America between now and the election, Bush
will appear to be Johnny One-Note, which in fact he is. That
one note is sounding shrill, especially in the absence of (1)
Osama bin Laden, (2) an extensive Iraq/al-Qaeda connection,
(3) Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, (4) any further terrorist

Bush is
unable to rouse even a glimmer of crowd enthusiasm when he speaks
on any other issues. This is why he rarely speaks on any other
issues. But the public has a short attention span. Iraq can
be made interesting for only so long.

At some
point, probably before mid-summer, Nielsen ratings for news
programs on Iraq will decline. At that point, the media will
shift to other stories, and none of them will be good for Bush.
The economy will become the focus of prime-time attention. Viewers
will watch. Misery loves company.

The media
are statist. The teleprompter writers and the journalists will
feature stories on corporate greed, crony capitalism, unemployed
families, and jobs lost to foreign markets. All of this will
be true, as far as it goes. We live in a mixed economy. But
the media always blame the remnants of the free market, not
political control over the market, for whatever ails the economy.

Bush will
not respond effectively to these criticisms. He will probably
not even try. He is no Ronald Reagan, who survived the sharpest
economic downturn in the American economy since 1931. Reagan
talked his way out of it, and he was fortunate enough in 1981
to get Congress to cut marginal tax rates. The economy had recovered
by the 1984 election.


I do not
know or care how many Democrats are presently running for President,
but the number approaches 1960’s campaigns. The candidates will
all be on the attack. Their specific proposed solutions will
be drowned out by the noise produced by the others. What will
come through is the message that the economy is faltering, and
the Republicans are in power. Both messages are true. The conclusion
— it’s the Republicans’ fault — is standard fare in
an election year. Half the electorate feels cheated by the 2000
election. This means that they will applaud any and all attacks.
They will expect a response from Bush, but Bush on any issue
other than terrorism or war is an armadillo: a rhetorical Texas
speed bump. The Democrats might as well read him his Miranda
rights immediately: anything he says will be held against him.
So will the way he says it.

Bush does
not do well on defense. Reagan was a master on defense. “There
you go again” torpedoed more attacks on him than I can recall.
But Bush gets visibly cranky. He will spend most of 2004 being
cranky. Americans don’t like crankiness in their Presidents.
Democrats like what Harry Truman dished out in 1948. Even though
Truman was President, he successfully positioned himself as
the victim of the Republicans. He won, and the Democrats recaptured

Bush today
is in a position of strength. He will not be able to position
himself as a victim unless some terrorist takes a shot at him.
Therefore, when it comes to verbal attacks, Bush in 2004 will
be the dished, not the disher. I can hear it now. “Are you dishing
me?” he challenges his opponents. “You got it, frat boy!”


will run on the slogan of balanced budgets. This will be like
watching a dancing bear. The poor creature does not do it well,
but it does it.

They will
“hold the line” on further tax cuts. Bush may even attempt to
Laffer-curve his way out of it, but nobody will buy it. The
deficits are heading to Mars, having already passed the moon.
We forget that Reagan raised taxes: Social Security (1983) and
TEFRA (1986). That kept the deficit to under $300 billion a
year, barely. In 1981, the national debt was $785 billion. When
he left, it was over $2 trillion.

Bush will
run his campaign with the Federal Reserve having shot its normal
pre-election year wad. The FED cut interest rates in 2001. It
has no other rabbit in its hat.

tax cuts were minimal. They will be blamed for the deficit.
The Democrats have no solution to the economy, but they don’t
have to have one. Politics is about revenge, blame-shifting,
and “hail, Mary” passes. Like Nixon’s vague promise in 1968
of his plan to get us out of Vietnam, all it takes is a painful,
unsolved problem to persuade voters that there may be an escape
by voting for the guy who is out of office. They prefer not
to stick with the devil they know.


won in 1980 with his phrase, “Are you better off today than
you were in 1976?” People knew they weren’t. Basically, that
was how Clinton won in 1992. Any Democrat worth his salt will
use some variation of this refrain in 2004.

is little likelihood that Bush will be able to respond plausibly,
“The recovery is just around the corner.” If he does, he will
be accused of imitating Herbert Hoover. “Show us the corner!”

team supposedly plans to spend two hundred million dollars to
get him re-elected. That will buy a lot of TV air time. The
media are powerful. But this level of spending could backfire.
“The Republican fat cats are trying to buy the election!”

The Republicans
plan to hold their nominating convention in September —
very late. That will give the Democrats’ candidate two months
to rise in the polls, after the Party’s faithful come together
behind their candidate after the convention.

would have had a good shot at the nomination and the office,
but he officially bowed out in January. I have no idea who will
get the nomination. That grating sound you hear is the Democrats
scraping the bottom of the barrel. But the multiple campaigns
will focus on what’s wrong with the economy. That message will
get through. “It’s the economy, stupid.”


Never underestimate
the revenge factor. Millions of voters want to get even, and
they will go to the polls to do it. Whether Republicans will
be equally committed to get to the polls is doubtful. “We won
fair and square!” doesn’t make the blood run as hot as “You

If the
weapons inspectors in Iraq do not discover large supplies of
usable weapons of mass destruction, the Democrats will be able
to pillory Bush for having relied on such poor intelligence
(the spying kind, I mean).

month by month, Kim Jong-il will continue to twist Bush’s tail.
“I’ve got nukes, I’ve got nukes. Nyah, nyah, nyah.” That little
man, unlike Saddam, is ready to push the button if challenged.
Bush knows this. Kim knows that Bush knows this. If Bush does
nothing about Kim, he risks becoming viewed retroactively as
a bully for beating up Saddam, who had no nukes. The Democrats
need not reveal what they would do about North Korea, any more
than Eisenhower in 1952 had to say what he would do. “I shall
go to Korea,” he said, and won. But all he got was a cease-fire,
never a peace treaty. That is all any President ever got.

How many
Republicans will stay home in 2004 out of a sense of embarrassment
for having been fooled by the Administration’s claims that America
invaded Iraq in order to stop Iraq’s extensive support of al-Qaeda
(unproven) and destroy Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction
(unproven)? A lot more than Democrats who will stay home because
they really aren’t interested in revenge.

If I were
a Democrat, I would know which tunes to sing in 2004.

the stolen White House!” “Are you better off today than in 2000?”
“Crony capitalism!” “No weapons of mass destruction after all.”
“Give diplomacy a chance.” “Rebuild America’s infrastructure,
too.” “Read our lips: No more tax cuts!”

in private will murmur, though never say in public, “That slant-eyed
shrimp is making us look bad.” This is the problem that every
gunfighter faces, and every nation that adopts the way of the
gunfighter. “I’m calling you out, Ringo!” Here it comes again.

But this
challenger has nukes, or will have them soon. Then he will build
even more nukes. If Bush orders a pre-emptive strike on North
Korea, Kim will probably invade South Korea. That would take
out the South Korean economy and bring down its banks. “How
you like these options, almond eyes?” Meanwhile, our troops
are in Iraq.

Bush will
have to grin and bear it. The public’s perception of Bush as
a man of action will be undermined by a guy who wears elevator
shoes and a bouffant hairdo.

Bush had
better pray that Ralph Nader runs an even more successful campaign
in 2004. He needs it.

28, 2003

North is the author of Mises
on Money
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