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Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Challenge President Bush's Policies - 2003-05-08

Victory in Iraq and success in the war on terrorism have Republicans confident about President Bush's re-election prospects next year.

The military victory in Iraq has bolstered the president's approval rating to more than 70 percent, usually a good political indicator the year before a presidential election.

To be sure, the president remembers what happened to his father, the first President Bush. He had soaring poll ratings in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, only to lose to Democrat Bill Clinton a year later because of a stagnant domestic economy.

Even as this President Bush shifts his focus to improving the economy, the president's re-election team will be working hard in the months ahead to remind voters of his national security credentials.

"The use of force has been, and remains, our last resort," said President Bush. "Yet all can know, friend and foe alike, that our nation has a mission. We will answer threats to our security, and we will defend the peace."

The imagery of the president giving a speech aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln will be a tough act for the Democrats to compete with. But none of the nine Democrats running for president appear to be shying away from challenging Mr. Bush's record on national security or foreign policy.

Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is one of the more conservative Democrats in the nine-person field. He joined the other candidates in a recent debate in South Carolina.

"Our party and the American people have an important choice to make in the next year-and-a-half or two years, when we go up to November of 2004," he said. "And the fact is that they are not going to choose anyone who sends a message that is other than strength on defense and homeland security."

Senator Lieberman is one of four Democratic presidential hopefuls who supported the congressional resolution authorizing the president to use military force against Iraq. The others are Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina and Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt.

Two other Democratic presidential candidates, Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Senator Bob Graham of Florida, voted against the resolution.

"I think this was the wrong war at the wrong time, because we have set a new policy of preventive war in this country," said former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, another presidential candidate who reflects the split in the Democratic Party over Iraq.

The two remaining candidates, former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton, also opposed the war in Iraq.

Republicans like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham are almost gleeful at the prospect of any of the nine Democrats trying to challenge President Bush's national security or foreign policies.

"To be honest with you, national security is important post 9-11, and you cannot talk about who is going to be the next president without looking at their ability to lead in tough times," he commented. "And that is going to be something the president will bring to the table."

American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman predicts the Democrats have an uphill struggle.

"During World War II, in 1944, the Republicans hoped to beat Franklin Roosevelt by kind of kibitzing [criticizing] around the edges of the war, talking about matters of efficiency of government," he said. "It didn't work. The people elected by a wide margin their commander-in-chief."

Another analyst, Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report, says the Democrats will try mightily in the months ahead to focus the campaign on the slumping U.S. economy, a strategy that proved successful against the president's father in 1992.

"You know, they will take a shot here and there at the president, at his so-called failure of diplomacy," said Mr. Rothenberg. "They will criticize him if he does not bring the U.N. into Iraq effectively. But I think, they think that the president is vulnerable on the economy, and that is where they are going to direct most of their criticisms."

But other experts argue that the world of U.S. politics has changed in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and that national security is now just as important as, if not more important than, economic security.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says the 2004 election is shaping up more like a presidential contest during the Cold War period, when national security and foreign policy issues were more dominant than they have been in recent years.

'With the fall of communism, we lost that for three presidential elections," said Mr. Sabato. "The 1992, 1996 and 2000 presidential elections were really almost entirely about domestic policy. Well now, national security and foreign policy are back with a vengeance, and so, we are resuming what we lost for 12 years, resuming a focus on presidential elections with respect to foreign policy and national security."

The 2004 election is still 18 months away, but already, some of the challenges for Mr. Bush and his Democratic challengers are clear. For the president, he must be seen as trying to do something to stimulate the economy. For the Democrats vying to succeed him, they must be able to present themselves as viable guardians of national security.