Does Bush have a political interest in prolonging the war?

Political commentary and more.
Dec. 6 2001 5:30 AM

Is it in Bush's political interest to prolong the war?

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Before 9/11, it seemed pretty clear that President Bush, though popular, might have trouble getting re-elected. Having passed his tax cut, and almost passed his education reform, he'd essentially run out of things to do on the domestic front. (Staffers were assigned to brainstorm and come up with a new agenda.) Worse, he faced a potential independent presidential campaign by Sen. John McCain. In a Washington Post article last June, Thomas Edsall and Dana Milbank sketched out the powerful rationale for a McCain candidacy:

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McCain sees each party held hostage by its base—Democrats wedded to entitlements and Republicans dominated by corporate interests—thus leaving room for a centrist populism.

McCain adviser Marshall Wittmann put the chances of an independent run at "fifty-fifty." Sure, Wittmann is the classic eager adviser and was probably exaggerating. But signs did point to McCain's defection from his party. Republicans were killing his pet legislation on campaign-finance reform. More generally, Bush has been running an administration designed to avoid angering the right wing. That leaves a big hole up the middle. McCain, for his part, shows alarming signs of publicity withdrawal—and there is only one sure cure for that.

My guess is McCain would have made the run. The lure of a thrilling, history-making campaign, with all the attendant media fawning, would have been too great. What's more, I think McCain would have won. His essential analysis—both parties are captives of their "bases"—is, after all, right. Under similar circumstances in 1992, the slightly kooky Ross Perot won a fifth of the vote.

This is all moot, of course, thanks to the terrorist attacks. It's inconceivable that a military man like McCain would challenge Bush while there's a war on.

But that's the point: while there's a war on. What is by now glaringly clear—even as, with U.S. troops engaged in combat, it remains unmentionable—is that the continuation of the war works in Bush's political interest. It's not just that Bush, as an effective wartime leader, is popular. It's that as long as there is a war, Bush doesn't have to worry about McCain. As long as there is a war, he doesn't have to worry about anyone focusing too intensely on his nonexistent domestic agenda.

In this respect, the recent much-discussed New York Times piece on the internal White House "guns" versus "butter" debate miscast Bush's choice. The Times' Richard Berke and Thom Shanker suggested that if you were a Bush adviser concerned with politics, you naturally argued that Bush should "declare victory and retreat to domestic issues." After all, "Mr. Bush's father enjoyed astronomical approval ratings after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, only to lose his job 18 months later because the public believed he had not responded effectively to an economic slowdown."

But that gets it backward. Bush's father is the one who declared victory and ended the Gulf War early. The public then had a year and a half to brood about domestic policy. If Bush doesn't want to repeat his father's mistakes—which does seem a guiding principle of his administration—he'll be leery of a too-early termination of the current conflict. Not just for policy reasons, but also, if he thinks about them, for sound political reasons. As long as the war against terrorism is going as well as it seems to be going, then the longer it goes on, the better the chances that Bush will be a two-term commander. Don't worry, there's a big "to be sure" paragraph coming up.

Here it is:

To be sure, this analysis applies to presidential elections only. House results may vary. I'm not saying Bush is intentionally and unnecessarily prolonging the war against terrorism just because it might be in his interest to do so. Even were he to take the war to a "Phase 2" or "Phase 3" in Iraq, I wouldn't make that accusation. I join in the near-unanimous support for his conduct of the anti-terror campaign so far.

But it's still true that a longer war is "objectively" in Bush's political interest, as a Marxist would say—and that's hardly irrelevant. All human decisions tend to be subtly and unconsciously influenced by self-interest. For all I know, Bill Clinton thought he was making the best decision for the nation when he launched the cruise missile attack on that Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in 1998. A desire to distract the public from his testimony before the grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky case may not have been a conscious motive. That doesn't mean it wasn't a motive.

Similarly, it's worth keeping in mind—as the war proceeds and enters a difficult, less conventional phase in which the very existence of an enemy is harder to determine—that Bush's decisions, too, may be subtly influenced by his "objective" political self-interest.

Prediction! Kausfiles will be roundly condemned as unpatriotic for this item. But within two months the essential point—that it's in Bush's political interest to keep the war going—will be such a staple of punditry that you will switch channels when you hear it.

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