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Essay: If it could happen to Churchill...


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Could it befall Bush? Why a wartime leader's success can be his downfall

Wartime leaders have always faced the worst fear: defeat in battle. But in democracies at least, war leaders also confront another danger: success.

The qualities that make for great statesmanship in wartime determination, a single focus on victory, a black-and-white conviction of who is friend or foe can often seem crude or overbearing when peace comes around.

The most dramatic example of this in Western history is Winston Churchill. It is no exaggeration to say that without him, Britain may well have been destroyed by Hitler. He was the difference between victory and defeat.

But almost the minute that victory was declared, the voters turned on their hero. He lost the postwar election. Even more striking, he lost it in one of the biggest landslides in Britain's parliamentary history. He wasn't just defeated. He was buried.

I wonder if the lesson of Churchill now haunts the office of Bush political strategist Karl Rove. For something not completely dissimilar seems to be happening to George W. Bush.

Since just after the capture of Saddam, Bush's ratings have been slumping. And this is less surprising than it appears. The paradox of the war against terrorism is that the more the President succeeds, the more politically vulnerable he gets. The fewer the terrorist incidents, the more remote the fear, the less necessary the war seems and the more dispensable the war President appears.

If he responds to this by insisting that the enemy is still powerful and dangerous, he runs the risk of seeming to concede that he hasn't managed to curtail the threat. Or, worse perhaps, it seems as if he's whipping up fear and panic for his own electoral advantage. And after the failures of intelligence with respect to weapons of mass

Here's what a really smart Democratic contender could say to the President this fall: "Thank you, Mr. President, for your leadership in difficult times. You made some tough decisions, and we are safer as a result.

But the very qualities that made you a perfect pick for the war so far are the very ones that make you less effective from now on. You are too polarizing a figure to bring real peace to Iraq.

You are too unpopular overseas to allow European governments to cooperate fully in the attempt to hunt down terrorists. And your deep unpopularity in half the country makes it impossible for you to make the necessary compromises that the country needs domestically. Thanks for all you've done, but bye-bye."

An effective line, don't you think? Don't get me wrong. I'm not endorsing this position. I think the war on terrorism is far from over, and Bush's toughness is a vital part of the struggle.

But he's deeply vulnerable because of these trends. The British people ejected Churchill not because they disapproved of his war but because they didn't think he was the man to lead them in peacetime. Churchill's opponent in 1945, Clement Attlee, was, like John Kerry today, no heavyweight.

In Churchill's words, Attlee was a "a modest man who has much to be modest about." But he still crushed Churchill at the polls. The first President Bush faced the same problem. With the Gulf War and the cold war over, voters wanted a domestic, ingratiating figure to lead them in the 1990s. Enter smooth-talking Bill Clinton. More than a decade later, John Kerry and the Democrats have opened up a lead in the polls.

The other Churchill parallel is equally unnerving. Churchill was a Tory as much as the current Bush is a conservative. But during wartime, Churchill expanded government to mobilize the country to fight Hitler.

By doing so, Churchill helped legitimize Big Government. So the Labour government that succeeded him was the most left-wing in Britain's history. It favored high taxes, nationalized industries and created socialized medicine.

The Tories, because they had backed Big Government in wartime, had little credibility in opposing these policies. Similarly, Bush has expanded government more aggressively than any President since L.B.J. (another war leader). Vast new military and security spending has been accompanied by a bank-breaking new entitlement in Medicare.

When Bush now criticizes Kerry on spending and the size of government, he has little credibility with the voters. And so the chances of a very liberal Democratic Administration have escalated.

That's the conservative nightmare. Bush wins the war. The Democrats win what looks like a postwar election. The government stays big, but taxes are raised to pay for it. Maybe it won't happen. But if it does, one man will be responsible. George W. Bush: architect of a liberal takeover.

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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