WHY PRESIDENT Bush waited so long to respond to the baseless ''Bush lied" lie is a mystery. Perhaps he thought he had more to gain by remaining above the fray than by rolling up his sleeves and wading into it. Perhaps he imagined that because the slander was so brazen -- so easily refuted, so self-evidently untrue -- it wouldn't deceive the majority of Americans who supported his reelection last year.
Whatever his reasoning, it was a blunder to have said nothing as the lies about ''lies" piled up. Unrebutted accusations, even ridiculous ones, turn into conventional wisdom if they are repeated often enough. And disparaging conventional wisdom about a president takes a toll. According to the latest Gallup poll, only a minority of the public, 46 percent, now describe Bush as ''honest and trustworthy." Only 37 percent approve of the job he is doing as president, the lowest percentage yet.
Of course, Bush is not the first president to suffer a steep decline in popularity. With the exception of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, every president in the past 60 years has seen his approval rating sink at some point to 37 percent or worse. Lowest of all was Harry Truman, who fell to an abysmal 22 percent in February 1952. Most have bounced back.
Bush will, too. Not because he is immune to a serious Democratic challenge, but because there is no serious Democratic challenge. Like the Kerry campaign in 2004, the Democratic Party in 2005 pumps out great foggy clouds of platitudinous bombast, but rarely counters Bush's policies and performance with a well-defined alternative of its own. If you can't beat somebody with nobody, as the old maxim has it, you also can't beat something with nothing. And so far, as Howard Dean demonstrated on ''Meet the Press" the other day, the Democrats' ''vision thing" is a whole lot of nothing.
Why, the Democratic Party chairman was asked, do 52 percent of independent voters believe the Democrats have no clear message? Why do one in four Democrats believe that?
Tim Russert: For example, what is the Democratic position on Iraq? Should we withdraw troops now? What do the Democrats stand for?
Dean: Tim, first of all, we don't control the House, the Senate, or the White House. We have plenty of time to show Americans what our agenda is and we will, long before the '06 elections.
Russert: But there's no Democratic plan on Social Security. There's no Democratic plan on the deficit problem. There's no specifics.
Dean: Right now it's not our job to give out specifics. We have no control in the House. We have no control in the Senate. It's our job to stop this administration, this corrupt and incompetent administration, from doing more damage to America. And that's what we're going to do.
Russert: But is it enough for you to say to the country, ''Trust us, the other guy's no good. We'll do better, but we're not going to tell you specifically how."
Dean: We will. When the time comes, we will do that.
Russert: When's the time going to come?
Dean: The time is fast approaching.
Russert: This year?
Dean: In 2006.
Now there's a slogan to wow the voters: We'll get back to you in '06! Say what you will about George W. Bush, he is not afraid to take a stand, or to say something that may may hurt him in the next Gallup poll. This White House is not known for its pussyfooting aversion to controversy.
In a forthcoming volume on the Bush presidency, ''Rebel-in-chief," veteran political reporter Fred Barnes writes of the president's interest in George Washington, the central figure in three recent works of history -- ''1776" by David McCullough, ''His Excellency" by Joseph Ellis, and ''Washington's Crossing" by David Hackett Fischer. Bush, who has read the McCullough and Ellis books, remarked: ''I'm the 43d guy, he's the first, and they're still analyzing the first." Barnes spells out the point: ''If the verdict on the first president isn't chiseled in stone, history's judgment on Bush, who has not even completed his second term, consists of nothing but conjecture."
With public opinion of Bush's competence and honesty at record lows, it may be hard for many to imagine his ever being seen as anything but a failure. But in 1952, when Truman's approval rating was down to a miserable 22 percent, who would have guessed that millions of Americans 50 years later would look back on him with admiration as a man of character and a gutsy, plainspoken leader?
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com.