By Mark Mellman - 12/06/06 12:00 AM EST
While excitement no doubt grips GOP presidential contenders as they begin their quests, the truth is the Republican nominee faces rather dismal prospects in 2008.
Pay zero attention to the horserace polls now in circulation. Historically they have borne little relationship to the ultimate outcome. At this stage, Mondale led Reagan, to whom he later lost 49 states. Analysis of the underlying dynamics has proven a much more fruitful approach.
The most basic element of the 2008 dynamic is that a non-incumbent will be trying to extend Republican rule into a third consecutive term. Historically, that has been a very difficult feat. Since 1948, seven candidates, including Bush in ’04, have been incumbents seeking a second term for their party (note: a second party term, not a second personal term). Only one lost — Jimmy Carter in 1980. Non-incumbents attempting to keep control of the White House for their party beyond two terms — the situation Republicans face in 2008 — have fared much less well. Since 1948, the incumbent party has won only one of five such races. Voters weary of more of the same, while the party in power often runs out of intellectual and policy steam.
That handoff is extraordinarily difficult in the best of circumstances — and President Bush will hardly be leaving in the best of circumstances. As the summer political season intensified in 1960, President Eisenhower had a 60 percent approval rating, but Vice President Richard Nixon could not keep the White House in Republican hands. President Clinton’s approval rating was over 60 percent, but that was insufficient for Al Gore. At the time of the one successful handoff, Ronald Reagan’s approval rating stood in the mid-50s.
Far from a perfect linear correlation, but when incumbents’ ratings are low, it is particularly difficult to pass on the keys to the White House. Adlai Stevenson may have bombed anyway, but Harry Truman’s 32 percent approval rating did not help; nor was Lyndon Johnson’s 39 percent an asset for Hubert Humphrey.
As we approach election 2008, it is hard to imagine Bush cracking 45 percent approval, absent some dramatic event. Indeed, Bush’s failure looms so large over 2008 that it has already helped force out of the race one contender tied closely to him — Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
The elections this November proved to be a repudiation of Bush policies across the board. What good is there in the Bush presidency that requires yet another Republican president? Hard to imagine.
In fact, the most important legacy Bush will leave his putative successor is an unpopular war. Just as Korea damaged Stevenson and Vietnam hurt Humphrey, Iraq will damage the Republican nominee. Of course, some of the ’08 GOP contenders may attempt a late sprint away from Bush’s Iraq policy, but that will prove difficult for most of them given their very recent public statements. John McCain, for example, already tried to out-Bush Bush, urging that more U.S. troops be sent to Iraq.
The Bush economy also seems destined to be a drag on the GOP ticket in 2008. Widely respected economic forecasters at the University of Michigan project Gross Domestic Product to grow by 2.4 percent in 2007 and 2.5 percent in 2008. Not only is that well below the current 3.2 percent growth rate, it is poor by presidential election-year standards. If that forecast proves accurate, 2008 will sport the 13th worst presidential year economic performance of the last 16.
George Bush will bequeath the 2008 GOP nominee a failed presidency, an unpopular war and a sputtering economy — the weakest platform imaginable from which to wage a campaign for four more years of Republican rule in the White House.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.