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Saturday, December 27, 2003

By Steven Taylor @ 8:06 am

This column ran last Sunday (12/21/03) in the Mobile Register. However, they never did get it posted to the web site, so here’s the pre-published version:

Saddam and the 2004 Elections

Steven L. Taylor

The United States, and the people of Iraq, scored a victory this past weekend with the capture of former dictator, Saddam Hussein. Saddam will now stand trial in Iraq for the crimes he committed against his own people, which include torture, false imprisonment, and mass murder. Regardless of ones position on the war in Iraq itself, it is not difficult to state that Saddam is an evil man, and that the world is a better place with him in custody.

Beyond the broader historical issues wrapped up in these events, there is the topic of politics, and especially, as we stand on the threshold of the new year, electoral politics. So, given the obvious centrality of the war in Iraq to the 2004 presidential elections, it is wholly legitimate to ask how the capture of Saddam Hussein will affect those contests. The politics of the situation come down to two separate processes: the race for the Democratic nomination, and the general election campaign, especially in terms of how this capture helps President Bush.

First, the immediate political question is: does this knock Howard Dean out of his front-runner status? Some pundits have argued that it will damage Dean in his quest to be the man to face George W. Bush in the fall. However, I disagree with that assessment. I do think that there are long-term implications for the Dean campaign, but nothing that will derail his bid for his partys nomination.

There is an argument to be made that the capture of Saddam helps the pro-war Democrats, such as Richard Gephardt and Joe Lieberman, to the detriment of front-runner Howard Dean. Said Senator Lieberman on Meet the Press, after learning of the capture of Saddam, Let’s be real clear… If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam would be in power not prison. While true, the question becomes: will that fact matter to Deans supporters, or to Democratic primary voters who were opposed to the war in the first place?

The answer is: no.

If having Saddam removed from power in the first place was not sufficient cause to change the minds of those millions of American who opposed the war in the first place, why would having the fugitive dictator in custody suddenly change their minds? The answer is clear: if one was opposed to the war prior to Saddams capture, one almost certainly remains opposed now that he is behind bars. There will be some general euphoria that he is no longer on the loose, but that will not change the fundamental political calculus within the Democratic Party.

Howard Dean is currently riding a wave of frustration aimed at Bush from within the hardcore sectors of the Democratic Party. The capture of Saddam will not cause their dislike of the President to dissipate. Nor will it cause their qualms over the war to vanish. Despite the clear importance of Saddams capture, nothing substantial has changed in the basic politics of the Democratic primary.

The second issue is: how will this event affect the fortunes of George W. Bush? There is a short-term and a long-term set of effects. There will be an immediate and fairly significant up tick in the Presidents approval rating, although a good portion of which will likely fade relatively quickly. Indeed, a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken on the day Saddam was captured showed a 57% approval rating for President Bush (up four points in a week) and a 68% approval for his handing of the war (up 10 percentage points from November, and the highest level of approval for his handling of the war since July). Another poll, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, shows the President with a 58% approval rating, and that 62% of the population believes that the war in Iraq has made America safer, up from 52% in September.

This latter number is especially significant, as security is going to a huge issue in 2004, and the candidate who makes the public feel safer is the candidate who is going to win next November. The issue of whether of not the war in Iraq specifically makes us safer is especially salient if Howard Dean does, in fact, win the Democratic Partys nomination, as he categorically stated in a major policy speech on December 15th that the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer.

Overall, the capture of Saddam will add to President Bushs general mystique and will enhance his reputation. Not only does it help make the case that he is a man who can get done what he sets out to do (something we like in our presidents), but also the incarceration of Saddam is a great resume line. Consider: President Bush is now the Commander-in-Chief who presided over the capture of one of the most notorious dictators of the latter half of the Twentieth Centurya distinction that is difficult to contend with by any of the Democratic challengers who want his job.

In sum: this event will not derail Howards Deans quest for his partys nomination, but it will make it more difficult for him to beat George W. Bush in November. Saddams capture doesnt guarantee a Bush victory, but it makes a Bush loss all the more unlikely.

Steven L. Taylor, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Troy State University.

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  1. Nice article, and probably right on the money.

    Comment by Eric — Sunday, December 28, 2003 @ 5:45 pm

  2. Yes, Bush is “…now the Commander-in-Chief who presided over the capture of one of the most notorious dictators of the latter half of the Twentieth Century.”

    After all those lies to send us there in the first place fizzled (i.e, WMD’s, weapons grade unranium sought from Africa, able to launch massive attack in 45 minutes, etc.) and the lives of hundreds of military personnell at least Bush got Saddam. (Does Bush feel it was worth it?)

    What I want to know is: Why didn’t Donald Rumsfeld just handcuff Saddam when he shook his hand back in 83?

    You remember. That’s when Reagan and Bushs’ daddy sent Rumsfeld to Baghdad to let Saddam know he was our favorite brutal dictator and that we would help him fire missles at, gas and otherwise slaughter those pesky Iranians. Don’t you remember?

    After all, Rumsfeld in response to questions about not finding any “WMD” says “we got Saddam! He’s been a brutal dictator for 30 years! He IS a weapon of mass destruction!”

    Hey, Rumsfeld, does that include 20 years ago?

    Comment by dave — Monday, December 29, 2003 @ 6:42 pm

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