Incumbency gives Bush upper hand

December 03, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - On the heels of President Bush's dramatic Thanksgiving Day flight to the Baghdad airport to thank American troops and eat turkey with them, the wary field of Democratic presidential candidates gingerly commended the trip. In doing so, they swallowed any temptations to label it a gimmick, lest they be accused of impure thoughts about possible political motive.

Yet at a minimum they must suspect it crossed the minds of the Bush re-election team that the surprise gesture would do no damage to the president's standing with voters as well as with the soldiers who greeted him with lusty cheers. Indeed, in the language of public relations, it was a 10-strike.

After the presidential trip to the USS Abraham Lincoln, whose "Mission Accomplished" banner in retrospect caused Mr. Bush some embarrassment as bullets continued to fly in Iraq, the Thanksgiving flight had no downside. That his prospective 2004 opponents either praised the trip or were rendered tongue-tied by it confirmed its political success.

What the flight did, beyond reinforcing to millions the president's image as a nice guy, was underscore for the Democratic candidates and their strategists the immense political vehicle that is the presidency, with all its trappings of prestige, power and machinery, starting with Air Force One.

Rather than going to Baghdad in a heavily camouflaged plane, which might have been the more prudent thing to do security-wise, the presidential entourage arrived in arguably the most famous and recognized aircraft in the world, the words "United States of America" emblazoned along its huge fuselage.

President Bush is not, to be sure, the first American chief executive to use the trappings of his office in ways, intentionally or otherwise, to reinforce the special role he plays in the life of the country. That includes its politics, with Air Force One as the presidency's most conspicuous traveling symbol. The Democratic opponents would give their eyeteeth for such a flying advertisement and are working overtime to get their mitts on it in the 2004 election.

What's more, the plane is only one of the advantages accruing to the occupant of the White House as candidate for re-election. His huge celebrity has been the oil that runs the machinery of the most successful fund-raising effort in American political history. His previously unprecedented achievement in raising $100 million in the 2000 campaign will be eclipsed this time around, with a goal of $170 million that may well reach $200 million or more - for a pre-convention campaign that has no serious opponent.

For the second time, the president's fund-raising prowess is enabling him to opt out of the restrictive campaign finance law that subsidizes less-endowed candidates, and it has caused Democratic candidates Howard Dean and John Kerry to go the same route in hopes of keeping up with him. The go-it-alone decision of the three has made a shambles of the subsidy system, leaving the Democratic candidates still toiling under it at a huge financial disadvantage.

But equally perilous for all the Democrats is the presidential incumbency itself, especially in the hands of the astute - some would even say unscrupulous - Bush White House political team headed by the single-minded Karl Rove. Obviously, the presidency has not always been a guaranteed ticket to a second term, as Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and the senior George Bush in 1992 found out. Presidential performance and events at the time can and have canceled out that ticket.

The second President Bush, however, has projected a persona of strength and confidence that these three defeated incumbents lacked. And while a major event - his war of choice in Iraq - looms as a potential barrier that can be exploited by the Democrats, signs of a recovering economy suggest they may not have pocketbook issues at home as a telling issue against him next November.

All in all, the uphill climb the Democrats were facing before the president brought his Thanksgiving wishes to the troops may look considerably steeper to them now, knowing he has pulled off a public relations coup at their expense.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau, and his column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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