2004 Presidential Election
In 2004, the United States' major preoccupation was the ongoing war in Iraq. Hopes that Saddam Hussein's capture in Dec. 2003 would stem the country's turmoil faded with a dramatic upsurge in violence. By April, a number of separate uprisings had spread throughout the Sunni triangle and in the Shiite-dominated south. Suicide bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings targeted civilians, Iraqi security forces, foreign workers, and coalition soldiers. In September alone there were 2,300 attacks by insurgents.1 In October, U.S. officials estimated there were between 8,000 and 12,000 hardcore insurgents, and a total of more than 20,000 “active sympathizers.”2 Loosely divided into Baathists, nationalists, and Islamists, all but about 1,000 were thought to be indigenous fighters. As of mid-December, more than 1,300 U.S. troops had died and 9,000 had been wounded in action.3 No official tally of Iraqi casualties exists, but most estimates range between 10,000 and 15,000 civilian deaths since the start of the war.
The deteriorating security situation was harshly criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike, who questioned whether the Pentagon had adequately prepared for an insurgency and deployed enough troops. Reconstruction efforts, hampered by bureaucracy and security concerns, had also fallen woefully short of expectations: by September, just 6% ($1 billion) of the reconstruction money approved by Congress in 2003 had in fact been used.4 Electricity and clean water were still below prewar levels, and half of Iraq's employable population was still without work.5 With few palpable signs of reconstruction to generate good will toward the U.S., American troops often faced a bitter and hostile populace. As a senior U.S. military officer put it, “We can either put Iraqis back to work, or we can leave them to shoot RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] at us.” A highly classified July 2004 national intelligence estimate offered pessimistic assessments of Iraq's future over the next year, ranging from “tenuous” stability at best to civil war at worst.6
Signs of significant progress included the U.S.'s return of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 28, and a plan to hold national elections by Jan. 31, 2005. Shiite Iraqi Council member Iyad Allawi became prime minister, and Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni Muslim, was chosen president.
Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo
In April, worldwide outrage followed the release of photos in the American media depicting the appalling physical abuse and sexual degradation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, which a U.S. military report described as acts of “purposeless sadism.”7 A July military report identified 94 more suspected or confirmed cases of abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the deaths of at least 39 prisoners.8 Further investigations are underway. In August, the Pentagon-sponsored Schlesinger report rejected the idea that the abuse was simply the work of a few aberrant soldiers, and asserted that there were “fundamental failures throughout all levels of command, from the soldiers on the ground to Central Command and to the Pentagon.”9
The controversial decision to classify detainees in the war in Afghanistan as enemy combatants, and not as prisoners of war subject to the Geneva Conventions, meant the U.S. could employ more coercive interrogation techniques, indefinitely detain prisoners, and deny them the rights to due process. White House Council Alberto Gonzales maintained that terrorism was “a new kind of war” that rendered portions of the Geneva Conventions “quaint.”10 In June, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's claim that the executive branch has unreviewable authority in time of war,11 ruling that detainees were legally entitled to challenge their imprisonment. By December, of the roughly 560 enemy combatants12 who had been held for three years at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, only four had been formally charged.13
On July 9, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a unanimous, bipartisan “Report on Pre-War Intelligence on Iraq,” evaluating the intelligence assessments that formed the basis for the Bush administration's justifications for the war. It strongly criticized the CIA and other intelligence agencies, concluding that “most of the major key judgments” on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were either “overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence report.” 14 It disputed the CIA's assertions that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. It also concluded that there were “no operational links” between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, another casus belli put forth by the Bush administration. In October, the Iraq Survey Group's final report confirmed that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction nor a formal plan to revive its WMD program.15 In response, President Bush began emphasizing that the removal of Iraq's repressive dictatorship was grounds enough for waging war, and contended that “America is safer today with Saddam Hussein in prison.”16
The Economy, Tax Cuts, and the Deficit
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal budget deficit reached a record $413 billion in 2004.17 The nonpartisan CBO also estimated that two-thirds of the 2004 deficit were the result of tax cuts.18 The Bush administration countered that the president's tax cuts had in fact kept the country's recession shallow and brief and were now stimulating the economy. In September, Congress renewed its faith in tax cuts by approving the extension of several cuts due to expire by 2006. Critics, including fiscally conservative Republicans, argued that it was unsound to offer tax cuts while the country was in the midst of an expensive war, a jobless recovery, and an unprecedented deficit.
In August, the Census Bureau reported that the number of Americans living in poverty had increased by 1.3 million in 2003, while the ranks of those without health insurance had increased by 1.4 million, the third straight annual increase in both categories.19
On May 17, same-sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts after the state's supreme court ruled in Nov. 2003 that barring gays and lesbians from marrying violated the state constitution. (San Francisco and New Paltz, N.Y. also performed same-sex marriages for a brief time, but these were later nullified.) A strong backlash around the country followed, with conservatives vowing to undo the work of “activist judges.” Although there was little support for a proposed federal consititutional amendment to ban gay marriage, all 11 state referendums banning gay marriage passed in November elections.20 Most states already had Defense of Marriage laws in place.
2004 Presidential Election
The 2004 presidential campaign between President Bush and Democratic senator John Kerry was one of the most closely followed and contentious races in recent history. Terrorism, the war in Iraq, tax cuts, health care, and the economy were the major issues. Kerry accused the president of mismanaging the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism and promised to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The president accused his opponent of being a “flip-flopper” on issues, and of not having the resolute leadership needed to fight the war on terror. President Bush won reelection, with 51% of the popular vote. Republicans also expanded their majorities in the Senate and in the House.