For President Bush, the capture of Saddam Hussein provides a huge short-term political boost. But its long-term impact during the coming campaign year will depend largely on its effect in Iraq.
Both Democratic and Republican analysts expect that Bush’s approval ratings and the public’s attitude toward the U.S. mission in Iraq will improve, perhaps significantly, as a result of Sunday’s dramatic news. But the durability of those gains could turn on whether Hussein’s capture leads to a reduction in the steady stream of American casualties that has eroded the mission’s support at home.
“At the end of the day, what matters is what happens,” said one ranking Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking. “So what matters is what effect this has on the insurgency.”
Some experts believe that having Hussein in custody could cause problems for the Democrats if their presidential nominee is, like current front-runner Howard Dean, defined by opposition to the war.
“The risk to the Democratic Party of Dean as their presidential nominee has gone up dramatically,” said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University.
Indeed, several Democratic contenders wasted no time trying to turn Sunday’s announcement against the former Vermont governor. “If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, not in prison, and the world would be a more dangerous place,” Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said.
The Democrats’ criticism of Dean was much sharper than their comments about Bush, whom the 2004 contenders have been lashing on Iraq for months. On Sunday, their words describing the administration were primarily those of praise.
“The first order of business is to congratulate the United States military, to congratulate the Iraqi people and to say that this is a great day, both for [the] American military and American people and for the Iraqi people,” Dean told reporters in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I think President Bush deserves a day of celebration.”
Likewise, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri -- whom Dean has attacked in Iowa television ads for supporting the war -- praised the administration for the successful action.
“This is a great day for our brave troops in Iraq, for the administration, and for the American people, and most importantly for the people of Iraq,” he told reporters in Sumter, S.C.
For Bush, Sunday’s news from Iraq follows a steady upswing in economic indicators, with the stock market and overall growth increasing substantially this fall. Greater stability in Iraq and a recovering economy would give Bush the classic campaign backdrop of peace and prosperity and could make him very difficult to beat, experts in both parties agree.
The Democrats, said the GOP strategist close to the White House, “are quickly going to run out of issues to have a referendum on.”
In fact, many uncertainties could still cause trouble. The depth of the recovery remains murky, and job growth remains slow enough that Bush still is on track to become the first president since Herbert Hoover to suffer a net loss of employment during his term.
After inheriting record budget surpluses, he is heading into the election carrying the weight of the largest budget deficits ever. And many of the benefits from the capture of Hussein could erode if violence and unrest persist in Iraq.
“They probably learned from the banner on the Lincoln saying ‘Mission accomplished,’ ” said Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative advocacy group. “I think if there is a banner this time, it will probably say, ‘One more mission accomplished.’ ”
Added John Zogby, an independent pollster, “It’s big ... but the problem is there are still troops there on the ground and they are still in harm’s way.”
James B. Steinberg, a deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration, predicted that the level of violence would diminish over time.
“The continued existence of Saddam out there has provided a rallying cry and motivating force for Baathists in Iraq,” said Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “So I do think it will have a big impact on their determination and willingness to carry on the fight.”
In polls this year, Americans have viewed Hussein’s capture as an important, but not indispensable, step in Iraq.
Asked if the mission would be considered successful only if Hussein is captured, a majority have consistently said no; in one CBS survey this year, nearly four times as many Americans said stabilizing Iraq was a higher priority than apprehending Hussein.
A decline in violence would greatly strengthen Bush’s hand in debates over the war. But in their initial reactions, the Democratic contenders showed little indication that Hussein’s capture would affect their arguments about the conflict.
They all noted that while getting the former dictator in custody was an important milestone, it was no guarantee of stability in Iraq. “This is still going to be a long, tough struggle,” Gephardt said.
Opponents of the conflict held their ground. Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark told reporters in a conference call that “I don’t think that the capture of Saddam Hussein in any way invalidates [the] concerns” he has raised about the war.
Long-shot candidate Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who has called for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops, said the capture meant that the American goal of removing Hussein from power “had been accomplished” and that America could now transfer authority for reconstructing Iraq to the United Nations.
The Democratic contenders who backed the war have uniformly accused Bush of fumbling the reconstruction by failing to win sufficient financial and military support from other nations. Albeit with a more conciliatory tone, Gephardt, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina all signaled Sunday that they would continue to press those arguments.
“Our military leaders have accomplished a great success,” Edwards said in a statement. “I hope President Bush will use this opportunity to chart a course in Iraq that will bring in our allies in a meaningful way to achieve a democratic and peaceful Iraq.”
Yet even some Democratic experts believe that if Hussein’s capture does improve security in Iraq, a call for greater assistance from allies could become tougher to sell.
“If things go better, then the need for the United Nations or somebody else is less compelling because we are just doing better on our own politically,” Steinberg said.
Much of the event’s ultimate effect on the general election depends on ramifications in Iraq impossible to predict today.
But its reverberations could be felt immediately in the Democratic race for the nomination, where Dean has surged ahead over the last six months in part by stressing his opposition to the war in Iraq.
Since Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq in May, the Democratic race has been heavily influenced by a complex dynamic: Any reversal in Iraq that strengthens the Democrats against Bush also has strengthened Dean, the most vocally antiwar of the major candidates, against the rest of the field.
The question now may be whether the reverse is true -- whether good news in Iraq will be bad news for Dean. The candidates chasing him quickly made clear that they hoped so.
Kerry, who only days ago was stressing the similarity between Dean’s views and his own in the period before the war, insisted Sunday that the capture raised questions about Dean’s foreign policy judgment. Kerry suggested that Hussein’s capture validated his 2002 vote for the congressional resolution authorizing the war.
“This is a time that underscores that, if we are going to beat George Bush, we need somebody who has experience and who got this policy right,” Kerry told reporters in Davenport, Iowa.
Without criticizing Dean by name, aides to Clark also insisted that Hussein’s capture showed the need for a candidate with credentials to compete with Bush on foreign policy.
“Today’s development reinforces that the major issue in the 2004 election is going to be national security,” said Chris Lehane, a senior Clark strategist. “The Democrats need a candidate who can meet the commander-in-chief test in next year’s election.”
Lieberman took the hardest line, denouncing Dean, praising the capture in unqualified terms -- “Hallelujah, praise the Lord,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” -- and calling for Hussein to be tried before a body that could sentence him to death.
On his campaign plane during a flight from Palm Beach to San Francisco on Sunday afternoon, Dean declined to respond to the comments made by his rivals.
“Today is not a day for politics,” Dean said. “Today is a day for celebration.”
Times staff writers Jim Rainey in Davenport, Iowa; Matea Gold in San Francisco; and Nick Anderson in Sumter, S.C., contributed to this report.