by Paul Krugman

Princeton, New Jersey

In my first column after the Sept. 11 attacks, I mentioned something that everyone with contacts on Capitol Hill already knew: That just days after the event, the exploitation of the atrocity for partisan political gain had already begun.

In response, I received a torrent of outraged mail. At a time when the United States was shocked and terrified, the thought that America's leaders might be that cynical was too much to bear. "How can I say that to my young son?" asked one furious e-mailer.

I wonder what that correspondent thinks now. Is the American public - and the new media - finally prepared to cry foul when cynicism comes wrapped in the flag? America's political future may rest on the answer.

The press has become a lot less shy about pointing out the Bush administration's exploitation of Sept. 11, partly because that exploitation has become so crushingly obvious. As The Washington Post pointed out on Thursday, in the past six weeks President George W. Bush has invoked Sept. 11 not just to defend Iraq policy and argue for oil drilling in the Arctic, but in response to questions about tax cuts, unemployment, budget deficits and even campaign finance. Meanwhile, the crudity of the administration's recent propaganda efforts, from dressing the president up in a flight suit to orchestrating the ludicrously glamorized television movie about Bush on Sept. 11, have set even supporters' teeth on edge.

Yet it's almost certainly wrong to think that the political exploitation of Sept. 11 and, more broadly, the Bush administration's campaign to label critics as unpatriotic, are past their peak. It may be harder for the administration to wrap itself in the flag, but it has more incentive to do so now than ever before. Where once the administration was motivated by greed, now it's driven by fear.

In the first months after Sept. 11, the administration's ruthless exploitation of the atrocity was a choice, not a necessity. The natural instinct of Americans to rally around their leader in times of crisis had pushed Bush into the polling stratosphere, and his re-election seemed secure. He could have governed as the uniter he claimed to be, and would probably still be wildly popular.

But Bush's advisers were greedy; they saw Sept. 11 as an opportunity to get everything they wanted, from another round of tax cuts, to a major weakening of the Clean Air Act, to an invasion of Iraq. And so they wrapped as much as they could in the flag.

Now it has all gone wrong. The deficit is about to go above half a trillion dollars, the economy is still losing jobs, the triumph in Iraq has turned to dust and ashes, and Bush's poll numbers are at or below their pre-Sept. 11 levels.

Nor can the members of this administration simply lose like gentlemen. For one thing, that's not how they operate. Furthermore, everything suggests that there are major scandals - involving energy policy, environmental policy, Iraq contracts and cooked intelligence - that would burst into the light of day if the current management lost its grip on power. So these people must win, at any cost.

The result, clearly, will be an ugly, bitter campaign - probably the nastiest of modern American history. Four months ago it seemed that the 2004 campaign would be all slow-mo films of Bush in his flight suit. But at this point, it's likely to be pictures of Howard Dean or Wesley Clark that morph into Saddam Hussein. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has already rolled out the stab-in-the-back argument: If you criticize the administration, you're lending aid and comfort to the enemy.

This political ugliness will take its toll on policy, too. The administration's infallibility complex - its inability to admit ever making a mistake - will get even worse. And I disagree with those who think the administration can claim infallibility even while practicing policy flexibility: On major issues, like taxes or Iraq, any sensible policy would too obviously be an implicit admission that previous policies had failed.

In other words, if you thought the last two years were bad, just wait: It's about to get worse. A lot worse.