George W. Bush once had a chance to be looking forward to a landslide victory today and a nation committed to standing together in defeating terrorism.
Instead, the president is perilously close to defeat. The best he can hope for is a narrow victory that will leave the nation bitter, divided and angry. One of Bush's achievements will be exceptional voter turnout and a renewal of the idea that elections and political parties matter. The downside, for him at least, is that a large share of the country has been activated for the primary purpose of ending his presidency.
The appalling reappearance of Osama bin Laden on the eve of our election was a reminder of what has been lost and of what Bush threw away. Three years ago, bin Laden was a symbol of the evil that Americans -- nearly all of us -- were fighting against. Now even bin Laden has been politicized.
In the days after Sept. 11, Democrats put aside their suspicions of Bush and rallied to his side. "We will speak with one voice," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle declared on that awful day. "All of us stand with the president," said Sen. Joe Biden. And stand with the president we all did.
For several months, Bush, too, stood above party. In assembling both a domestic and international coalition to wage war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the president put aside his critiques of unilateralism and "nation-building." As I wrote at the time -- yes, even I admired Bush that fall -- the president "grafted the language of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to the martial rhythms of Ronald Reagan." He sought broad support, not narrow majorities, for the Afghan war and his emergency spending proposals.
Back then I thought Bush had an enormous political opportunity that matched the nation's interest: to build a wide, sustainable, Eisenhower-like Republican majority. The country was waiting for a call to service, sacrifice and solidarity. It didn't want the old ideological politics.
But Bush interpreted his prodigious approval ratings not as an opportunity for something new but as a chance to push the same ideological agenda he was pursuing before Sept. 11. It was a chance to create a Republican majority in Congress in the 2002 elections. It was a chance to push through even more tax cuts, and never mind the deficits created by all that new spending. If the Senate, facing the 2002 elections, could be badgered into giving the president broad authority to wage war against Saddam Hussein, why not short-circuit a more searching debate and just grab the power? And if forcing an early Iraq vote put his potential 2004 opponents -- John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt -- in a bind, why not seize that advantage, too?
It worked for a while. And should Bush squeeze out a narrow win, his supporters will no doubt claim a victory for the president's audacious style.
But the cost of such a victory will be paid off for many years -- perhaps for as long as we're paying off the debt. Consider the reaction to bin Laden. Right there on Fox News, the Bush Channel, a Republican operative named David Johnson thought bin Laden's strange disquisition could be interpreted only one way. "This almost looks," he said, "like an endorsement by Osama bin Laden of John Kerry."
And thus were the last vestiges of the unity achieved on Sept. 11 wiped off the face of our politics. If holding power meant reaching this ultimate in guilt-by-association (and more respectable conservative commentators were offering similar thoughts in a more respectable way), then go right ahead and use bin Laden to win the election. The mess can be cleaned up later.
But the mess will not be easily cleaned up. Unity will not be easily restored. The willingness of the president's camp to slander the opposition will not be easily forgotten.
I think a majority of the country knows this, which is why I have a hunch that the president will lose. The virtues so many Americans outside of Bush's party thought they saw in Bush in the months immediately after Sept. 11 -- especially that short-lived willingness to put the needs of the national emergency over the temptations of ideology and partisanship -- are the virtues the president has chosen to abandon.
It's a shame, really. Bush could have been a great president. He was for several months. He chose instead to be the leader of a party and a faction. However this election turns out, that's what he'll still be on Nov. 3.