WASHINGTON, May 19 (UPI) -- With a year and a half to go before the next presidential election, many things can still go wrong for the Bush administration, but assuming they do not, or do so within reasonable limits, on current projections the outlook is quite clear. George W. Bush will be handsomely re-elected to a second term as president of the United States.
There have been many times over the past two and a half years in UPI Analysis when we were convinced trends indicated the opposite outcome would be the case. We have often criticized many of the administration's economic and national security policies as reckless and worrying.
It is quite feasible that during the next 18 months the U.S. economy will tank. Or that the United States will suffer one or more catastrophic terrorist attacks as bad, or even worse than, those of Sept. 11, 2001. Or that a future "quick, surgical" war against Syria, or North Korea or some other country or target to preempt the development of weapons of mass destruction or root out hiding places for al-Qaida will prove to be anything but, and get bogged down with escalating casualties, or go out of control.
But so far none of those things have happened. And unless some of them do -- or even if they do -- the smart betting must be on Bush to win a second term in the Oval Office.
The first and main reason for this is very simple. As Nicholas Murray Butler, future president of Columbia University, said of the attempt to deny the Republican vice presidential nomination to Theodore Roosevelt in 1900, "You can't beat someone with no one." Bush is very clearly "someone." The Democrats are still stuck with no one.
No dominant Democratic figure with national stature prepared to take Bush on in charismatic and hard-hitting way has yet emerged. Almost all the Democrat presidential hopefuls are "me-too" candidates, like Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. They agree with the main thrust of the president's policies, especially on Iraq, but they would just do it a bit differently. You don't beat a crisis, or a wartime president that way.
Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts have been the most outspoken in criticizing the president's policies and in standing up to him publicly. But Dean so far has not been able to shake the public perception that he is a small man sounding shrill. He lacks the track record or national stature to take on a sitting president in a time of crisis and his lack of traction in opinion polls shows it.
Kerry has a different problem. His years in the Senate, his very clear policy record, his standing as a combat vet in the Vietnam War all testify to his stature. And he has proven himself ready to talk tough and not be intimidated by the president in public debate -- a rare quality in Democrats of the current and even past generations.
But Kerry has another, all too basic, problem. He does not lack the qualities of gravitas and dignity: on the contrary, he has them in such massive quantities they pull him to the bottom of the political sea.
Every time Kerry opens his mouth, it is as if all his listeners have just taken an overdose of Valium. He addresses every public gathering as if it was a solemn committee hearing in Congress. He just cannot lighten up. He has enough negative charisma to equal all of Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan's positive excess of this quality.
Second, even though many macro-economic indicators of the U.S. economy remain very worrying -- such as the soaring federal budget deficit and the still out-of-control annual foreign trade balance of payments deficit -- and even though job losses have been slowly but inexorably rising, the worst of the chickens have not yet come home to roost and administration strategists may well be justified in their confidence that this will not happen, at least until they are safely re-elected.
Third, poll figures give the president solid grounds for confidence. His approval ratings may not be at the rally-round-the-flag unprecedented highs of around 90 percent where they were for months after the Sept. 11 mega-terror attacks, but they remain around a hale and hearty 70 percent -- easily enough for a landslide re-election win of historic proportions.
And even if they should slide, as no doubt at times they will, there are growing indications that something thought impossibly quixotic in the 2000 Republican campaign could come to pass in November 2004. For the first time in 16 years, the GOP could take California in a presidential race.
With the president's brother Jeb still riding high as the landslide re-elected governor of Florida, that would guarantee the race would be all over bar the shouting, even if a reasonably effective Democratic candidate could reclaim the party's historic claims over West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee that Al Gore so amazingly let slip in his 2000 campaign.
The Book of Ecclesiastes cautions us that the battle is not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift, but as Damon Runyon famously commented, that is still the way to bet. For all those reasons, therefore, still put your money on George W. Bush for November 2004.