WASHINGTON — The swan dive of President Bush's ratings in 2003-04, by early June down to the low and mid-40s, is eerily similar to George H.W. Bush's plummeting numbers in 1991-92 and could signal defeat in November. Both presidents saw initial military successes in Iraq turn into political embarrassments. But the two Bushes do not appear to be on parallel tracks when it comes to economics and intra-Republican Party divisions, an advantage for the younger Bush.
When the elder Bush went down to defeat in 1992, academicians noted the widespread failure of economic models that had predicted a victory for him. Then, as now, the problem with the Bushes' presidential economics was a pronounced tilt toward capital and corporations at the expense of labor and wages, which skews growth accordingly. In early 2004, a report from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University showed corporate profits for the first time displacing wages, salaries and benefits as the principal beneficiary of national income growth during the 2002-03 recovery. Even the 1991-92 Bush "recovery" was not this warped.
Both Bush presidencies have drawn fierce criticism for whopping budget and trade deficits, and both men have presided over currency gyrations and a weakened dollar. Skillful economic management is not one of their traits, and surveys this spring have confirmed voter skepticism of White House policies.
The principal component of both declining Bush trajectories involves war with Iraq. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the first President Bush topped out in the polls at a job-approval rating of 89%, the highest since polling had begun. But by mid-1992, his rating had collapsed into the low 30s, an extraordinary 57-point decline. Besides the economy, the citizenry felt that Bush had failed in Iraq; three of four respondents told pollsters that the United States was wrong to have stopped fighting before Saddam Hussein was removed from power.
Third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot also drew blood in the autumn debates when he charged that Bush bore responsibility for helping Hussein build up his military forces before the Gulf War; he also criticized the incumbent's seeming involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. When a special prosecutor, just days before the election, alleged that Bush had been "in the loop" of the arms-for-hostages affair, Democratic challenger Bill Clinton jumped five points in the polls. For Bush, scandal and failure in the Middle East replaced triumph.
The same transformation has been overtaking the younger Bush, though the media have been slow to point out the parallel with his father's implosion. Right after Sept. 11, polls showed Bush's job approval numbers climbing to 94%, higher than his father's 1991 record. By June of this year, weighed down by the chaos in Iraq, Bush's job numbers had also fallen by more than 50 points, to the 41%-43% range. As was his father, George W. Bush has been plagued by Mideast-related scandals: the failure to find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
For the moment, the biggest saving grace for the 43rd president is that, in contrast to the 41st, he did not have a GOP primary challenger, nor does he face a third-party independent who used to be a Republican. In 1992, both Pat Buchanan and Perot hit George H.W. Bush with criticisms either aimed at Republican voters or framed from a GOP perspective; Perot was particularly devastating. In 2000, George W. Bush got a taste of pointed criticism from Arizona Sen. John McCain, the lingering effects of which helped depress Bush's popular vote below that of Vice President Al Gore. If McCain had decided to oppose Bush again in 2004, the odds are that Bush would be bleeding from so many political wounds that he would be the November equivalent of dead meat, trailing Kerry nationally by 5 to 10 percentage points.
Instead, June's central political reality is that, despite Bush's nose dive in the ratings, he and presumptive Democratic nominee Kerry are neck and neck in November trial heats. Because Kerry has not exactly electrified national opinion, the huge erosion of the incumbent's credibility has left the race more or less a tie. The key almost certainly lies with the 20% to 25% of Republican voters who supported Perot in the 1992 general election or McCain in the 2000 primaries. Currently, only 5% to 8% of Bush voters in 2000 say they will vote for Kerry, which makes for no more than a close race. A Kerry-McCain arrangement, a recurrent media fascination, in which McCain would be Kerry's running mate on a progressive fusion ticket, would have blown the election wide open.