THE ONLY-CASE SCENARIO I have a friend who is betting money that George W. Bush will not be the Republican nominee for president in 2004. He believes that the American electorate will finally recognize that Bush has deceived them about Iraq and led the nation into a hopeless guerilla war that we cannot “win” in any meaningful sense, leaving young American soldiers to be picked off one by one in a desert far away. My friend also believes that the American electorate will finally start blaming Bush for the sluggish economy, for joblessness, and for a deficit that is preemptively bankrupting our children and grandchildren. My friend believes that Bush will soon plummet in the polls and that the behind-the-scenes Republicans who really choose the party’s presidential candidate will be forced to nominate someone who actually possesses both brains and integrity. My friend at one point declared that the 2004 election will be between Republican Colin Powell and Democrat Wesley Clark. I envy my friend his childlike ability to believe that his wishes can come true. And I can only smile at his confidence in the American voter. I, on the other hand, lack both hope and confidence. I foresee a different scenario--one that ends with Bush getting another four years in the White House and the United States being saddled with 1) a generation of federal judges who care nothing about defending our civil rights, 2) a Congress that cares nothing about protecting the poor from the rapaciousness of the rich, and 3) a White House that cares nothing about engaging the rest of the world effectively in our foreign policy. Here’s what I think will happen over the next 14 months: First, the American economy will rebound, as it always does after a downturn, regardless of who is president. Presidents have almost no effect on the economy. I don’t blame Bush for the current recession or for current unemployment. Nor will I credit him for the next upturn in the economy. But his timing is just right. We’re about to burst out of the slump we’ve been in--if only because companies have laid off about all the employees they can and have depleted their inventories are far as they need to, so it’s time things picked up. Bush, of course, will take credit for the economic rebound. The American people aren’t stupid enough to buy it, I don’t think, but the rebound will remove the economy as the strongest issue for the Democrats next year. Advantage Bush. Second, there will be another terrorist attack somewhere in the United States. There is bound to be. There have always been terrorist attacks, and there will be more. But 9/11 created a kind of triphammer paranoia among Americans, so the next attack--whether a downed airliner or a bombed building or a madman with a machine gun in Grand Central Station--will trigger a national shudder and screech, and the Republicans, as they always do, will fuel the fear in order to exploit it, because Republicans can talk tougher than Democrats. Republicans talk missiles, police, and revenge; Democrats talk negotiations, United Nations, and detente. The American electorate understands missiles, police, and revenge better. Advantage Bush. Third, Iraq will slowly recede into the inside pages of our newspapers and into the final twelve minutes of our newscasts, much as Afghanistan has already. This will happen because the American media, as has often been noted, cannot stay with a subject for more than a few months without needing to move on, lest they appear to be in reruns. If there is a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, Iraq will retreat even faster into oblivion. At some point, Bush may even declare victory there, pull out our troops, and let the faux government council we’ve installed there deal with the terrorists who are streaming over the borders toward Baghdad. Our special ops people in Iraq will probably even find Saddam himself (and almost certainly will find a dump of unconventional weapons, even if they have to plant them there themselves), giving Bush the excuse he needs to say, “We won! I was right! Now we can get out!” If Bush can get Colin Powell to talk the U.N. into sending other nations’ troops to Iraq in our place, the cut-and-run scheme will go even smoother. Whatever happens, the American public’s inability to focus on a single news story for very long unless it involves O.J. Simpson or Jennifer Lopez will take the troubles in Iraq off the table during the next election, as long as no more than one or two American boys dies there each day. Already, one dead American soldier a day is relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers, and it is certain that Rumsfeld and the field commanders will keep our boys behind the sandbags as the election approaches so that the death toll does not reach critical mass. Even if things are still awful in Iraq in the fall of 2004, the Republicans will generate another crisis somewhere else, to take attention away from Baghdad. (Look to Indonesia, the next source of real Islamic terrorism, or the ever-ready North Korea. A trumped-up little war we can win in the Philippines or Bali would serve Bush well.) In any case, Iraq will no longer be the big issue come November 2004. Advantage Bush. Fourth, the Republicans will use their convention in New York City on the anniversary of 9/11 to leverage their perceived strength in the tough-on-terror game. Fifth, the Democrats will nominate somebody so boring or so shrill that he will seem even less presidential than the Shrub himself. Sixth, the American electorate--especially the thoughtful Left--will be so tired and disgusted with it all that they will simply stay home on election day, leaving the field to the neoconservative fanatics, who, bless their hearts, do go out and vote. Advantage Bush. Advantage Bush. Advantage Bush. Finally, it’s clear that the neocons behind the throne will never nominate a person with brains and integrity, because such a person--a Colin Powell, a John McCain, an Olympia Snowe--would be beyond their control. For the invisible Republican power structure, it’s not about being in ostensible power themselves so much as having control over those who seem to be in power. We all know that Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and the moneyed men behind them pull George W. Bush’s strings. Does anybody really think Arnold Schwarzenegger has a single policy to call his own? He’s simply Ronald Reagan with an accent--someone to speak the lines written for him. George W. is perfect in that role, even if he can’t pronounce “nuclear.” So I’m sorry, my friend, Bush will be the nominee, and he will win. The only consolation is that sooner or later--probably by 2008--the American public will see the moral bankruptcy, not to mention the literal fiscal bankruptcy, that the W generation in the White House has led us to, and they will elect a good and decent Democrat along the lines of Jimmy Carter. But by then, given what will be left of our reputation in the world and our liberties in the courts, it may be too late.

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