Why Bush Lost in 2004

What a year.

Like everyone else, I guess the turning point was Russert’s interview with the Secretary of State. It was a defining moment, like the interview Roger Mudd did with Teddy Kennedy a generation ago. I think everyone in the country eventually saw that riveting media event in May 2004; it was broadcast again and again, Tim Russert, asking Colin Powell that unforgettable question. Powell had just finished congratulating himself and the Bush administration for having gone through Saddam’s Iraq “like crap through a goose,” intending, no doubt, to conjure up memories of that famous opening scene in Patton. “Now we’re well on our way to true democracy in Iraq," he boasted; “all of those critics who warned that the United States would be the occupying power for fifty years were wrong. In another year we’ll have a strong, representative democracy in Iraq, and our troops will be gone. We all feel they will do a fine job of bringing their country into the twenty-first century.”

Russert just looked at the beaming Powell for a moment, letting his satisfaction — no, his smug sense of defiance — sink in. And then, Russert asked calmly, “Mr. Secretary, what if the freely-elected government of Iraq decides to emulate other democracies like Israel, France, Russia, and the United States, and begins to develop nuclear weapons?”

Some say it was Powell’s blank, uncomprehending stare, his shifting in his chair, his clenched hands. Others say it was the full nine seconds of silence (all the replays included that deafening, endless pause, you could almost hear Powell’s pulse racing). Whatever it was, by the time he stammered something about “responsibilities to the international community” and “dependable assurances,” the truth had sunk in. Saddam was gone (well, at least no one could find him), but the threat was still there. The democratic government of Free Iraq might one day, perhaps soon, decide that nuclear weapons of mass destruction were in its national interest, and no one could stop them.

That’s when everything began to unravel.

It didn’t help, of course, that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had initiated his “transfer” (critics called it the “expulsion”) of over three million Palestinians to Arab countries at the very moment that the U.S. invasion began. While everybody knew that Sharon’s new coalition partners, the National Religious Party and the National Union, had joined Sharon’s coalition only on the promise that he would defy President Bush’s call for a peaceful settlement and a Palestinian state, no one in the Bush administration thought the threat of mass transfers was serious. Europeans were furious, and American accusations of anti-Semitism in “Old Europe” reached unprecedented levels. But the same bipartisan congressional majorities that in November 2001 and May 2002 had warned Bush not to hamper Israel’s security efforts did so again in May 2003, before the fall of Baghdad, and Bush’s hands were tied.

Of course, Iraq was not the only issue that buried Bush. In fact, most Americans were amazed at the speed with which Iraq left the headlines over the summer, as North Korea tested missiles that could penetrate to the American heartland, and bragged about it. And then there was Mexico’s President Vicente Fox, making a speech nationally televised (in both Mexico and the United States) demanding that Bush fulfill his promise, made in anticipation of Mexico’s support in the Security Council vote just before the invasion. Fox demanded immediate dual citizenship for all Mexicans who wanted to travel, work, or even resettle in the United States.

Bush’s loss of Florida was the biggest surprise, and so was the lopsided margin. After all, the state’s popular Democrat senator, Bob Graham, had declined to be on the ticket for health reasons, and Jeb Bush was still popular. But, in retrospect, even Bush’s strongest supporters in Florida knew where to point the finger: the September announcement by Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba of their joint military defense pact, underscoring their right to develop “defensive” nuclear weapons, could not have come at a worse time. It dominated the fall election campaign in Florida and completely eclipsed any possible discussion of American “successes” in the Middle East. The contradictory, uncertain rhetoric from the administration didn’t help at all — Powell’s nine seconds of silence became nine weeks of confusion.

Any of these issues in isolation might have been contained, but in aggregate they overwhelmed the Bush administration. It’s not as if they didn’t try: Karen Hughes returned to the campaign, and Karl Rove began doing the Sunday morning talk shows, while Condoleezza Rice was forbidden to make public appearances. But the economy was still sputtering, with all of Bush’s modest tax relief still bottled up in the Senate. Small business failures continued to mount. So did domestic spending and budget deficits. Moreover, the successful three-week Democrat filibuster of Bush’s appointments to the federal bench (“One week for each Supreme Court vacancy,” gloated the leader, New York’s Chuck Schumer) had left Bush’s conservative base dismayed and dispirited.

Those were not the only core supporters to be disappointed. Once Bush began to criticize mildly Israel’s “excessive” measures, the supporters of Israel in the Christian and Jewish communities vented their outrage at his “abandonment” of “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Leaders of these groups were outspoken. “We cautioned him not to confer any democratic accolades on the provisional Iraqi government,” said the Israeli embassy spokesman in Washington. “If Mr. Powell had been more circumspect,” he went on, “he never would have fallen into Mr. Russert’s trap. We believe Mr. Bush’s harsh attacks are uncalled for, and we fear that they might appeal to that age-old, dark monster of anti-Semitism at a time when prudence and clear thinking are so indispensable in the Middle East.” He then reiterated Sharon’s call for removing weapons of mass destruction from Libya, Syria, and Iran.

Bush and his team managed to handle the fallout reasonably well through the summer and early fall, and the polls were still within the margin of error up through Labor Day. In the last presidential debate, when the question that had flummoxed Powell came up, Bush handled it with unusual aplomb: “I can assure the American people that a democratic Iraq has nothing to fear from its neighbors, and that it would have no reason to develop nuclear weapons. But I’m sticking to my guns. Iraq is going to be a free country. We liberated it. We’re not going to boss the Iraqi people around.”

Within hours, leaks surfaced from “a high-ranking Defense Department official” — still unidentified — that the United States would indeed have to “contain” nuclear development in a democratic Iraq, “by persuasion, if possible, by force if necessary.” A clear-cut, intentional contradiction of Bush’s commitment, it made international headlines.

It was only two days later that Pope John Paul II, in what was one of his last public statements before his death later in the fall, denounced the prospect of renewed warfare in Iraq. “All violence breeds misery, hardship, and suffering,” said the frail Pontiff at the Mass of Canonization for Mother Teresa of Calcutta on the last Sunday in October. “I beg the people of the United States: give us justice, not oppression. Give us peace, not endless war. Give us respect for all peoples, regardless of their religion or their race. Stop the violence. Renounce violence. Work for peace. Pray for peace.”

Then came the final nail in the coffin, the one that no one could have anticipated, the one that so easily might not have had to happen at all.

Six days before the election, a Washington Times reporter spotted White House Political Director William Kristol in the hall and asked him to comment on the Pope’s statement. Kristol reportedly replied, “I can’t believe that the Pope has joined those who have lost their capacity to identify evil and to act against it — even when it stares them in the face.”

For the next five days, of course, the airwaves were filled with complaints from the Catholic Bishops Conference, Catholic politicians of both parties, and, quite prominently, Jesse Jackson — all amidst Kristol’s heated denials and his insistence that he had been “sandbagged,” “misquoted,” and “taken out of context.” The Sunday morning shows two days before the election featured little else.

The entire Bush family gathered at the Western White House on election night to watch the returns. This year there would be no complaints to Bernie Shaw about blowing the report on early predictions. This year there would be no huge swaths of red and little borders of blue. By midnight it was clear that the Republicans had lost the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.

The network pool camera caught it all. After George W. Bush finished his congratulatory call to the new president-elect. Laura Bush silently folded her hands in prayer, biting her lip, her eyes closed. Barbara Bush patted her dejected son on the knee, attempting animated conversation. George Bush senior, irritated, looked at his watch.