[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]A rare period of predictabilityThe fall before an election year in the United States gives form to the race as the public begins to focus on a few issues. This year is no exception, and the emerging issue is “good government” as measured by success in Iraq and the state of the economy. The recall election for governor of California, the first such recall election in 82 years, is about “good government” in the form of state finances. The momentum of the conservative-led recall effort and harsh Democratic criticism of President Bush for the handling of prewar intelligence on Iraq suggest that “good government” will be the vote-moving issue of 2004.
“Good government” is always at issue, but it usually takes the form of a single issue, such as the economy or a foreign crisis. Every president in the 20th century that lost a bid for re-election did so because of the economy or a foreign crisis.
Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford and George Bush all lost because of anger over the economy. Lyndon Johnson was driven from the Democratic primaries because of the Vietnam War, and Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election because of the Iranian hostage crisis. This suggests that Republicans do poorly when the economy is weak, and Democrats do poorly when the United States is involved in a crisis overseas.
The situation moving into 2004 is closest to that of 1980, when the United States was involved in a foreign crisis amid economic weakness at home. The difference, however, is that voters are looking at both issues with nearly equal concern. If events go well in Iraq, they will be willing to accept a certain degree of economic weakness. On the other hand, if the economy recovers, they will be more tolerant of setbacks in Iraq. If Iraq becomes a protracted guerrilla war and the economy does not recover, then voters will be clamoring for change with the same momentum that pushed through the California recall.
All of this puts President Bush and the Democrats in awkward positions. The two vote-moving events ― Iraq and the economy ― are largely beyond the president’s ability to control. Since 2001, Bush has already pushed several large tax cuts through Congress in the hope of stimulating the economy, but time is running out for a strong recovery in time for the election. The President has great sway over American policy in Iraq, but he can do little to stop the daily killings of U.S. soldiers. He can press the military to search for Saddam Hussein, but there is no guarantee that he will be found.
The Democrats, meanwhile, find themselves in a similarly awkward position because none of their candidates has captured the public imagination. The two strongest challengers to President Bush ― Al Gore and Hillary Clinton ― have said that they will not run, but deep down most Democrats hope that one of them changes his or her mind. Having won the popular vote in 2000, Al Gore remains the Democrats’ best chance of beating Bush in 2004. Hillary Clinton has inherited the Clinton political machinery and would easily win the nomination if she ran. The problem for the Democrats is that neither person wants to run unless he or she is almost certain of victory.
Without Al Gore or Hillary Clinton, the Democrats must rely on their pool of problematic candidates. Only a clear deterioration in the situation in Iraq or in the economy can propel one of the current candidates to victory over Bush, but such events would invite a Gore or Clinton candidacy late this year or early next year. All of this means that the next president of the United States will be Bush, Gore, or Clinton ― nobody else. If Bush wins, then his successor could easily be Gore or Clinton, meaning that Bush, Gore, and Clinton will dominate the political stage from now until 2013 or even 2017.
For Korea, this promises a rare period of predictability in relations with the United States because all the major players are known figures. Since the 1970s, three unexpected presidents, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have brought sudden jerks in American policy toward Korea, each of which has created a negative reaction in Korea. George W. Bush is now known, though not necessarily well liked, in Korea. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would bring a return to the policies of the first Clinton administration because they draw, however subtly, on nostalgia for those optimistic times of “good-looking government.” In the end, the question for Korean policymakers is how to take advantage of this unusual period of predictability in American politics. Preparing for four more years of Bush while studying up on Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would be good places to start.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser