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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Bush Hits a Ground Rule Double

I have to admit at the outset here that I’m really struggling to remain objective about the 2004 GOP convention. Plenty of people (including many Democrats) a lot smarter than me have overruled my low opinion of the Guiliani and Schwarzenneger speeches. And my basic reaction to Cheney’s speech as the sort of thing you’d hear at a small-town Rotary luncheon hasn’t turned out to be a trendsetter, either.
So: I assume my objectivity gland has swollen up and maybe busted, and perhaps I missed the brilliance and political power of George W. Bush’s acceptance speech.
To be sure, the prez delivered this speech well, as he generally does when he doesn’t have to think on his feet. There was a bit of Gerson poetry here and there. Even when he attacked Kerry, he managed to remain relatively upbeat. And he really, really has mastered the art of suppressing his natural smirk with the lip-pursing thing and an occasional Pepsodent smile.
Having said that, my impression of Bush’s Big Speech is that it performed several tasks fairly well, without conveying much of an overall case for his re-election. He checked a lot of boxes, without getting outside the boxes much at all. Specifically he:
(1) Offered a superficial defense of his record on domestic issues, about as thorough as Cheney’s Rotary speech;
(2) Labored through a second-term agenda that convinced media bean-counters to announce “15 new initiatives,” though I only counted two that were really new, assuming you don’t take seriously his content-free lines about reforming and simplifying the tax code;
(3) Identified himself and his party with a combo platter of Clintonian, New Democrat themes, ranging from the general endorsement of “empowering government” to specific, if hazy ideas about lifelong learning.
(4) Hit Kerry with several of the poll-tested “flip-flop” lines we’ve heard throughout the convention, while perhaps opening up a second front by talking about Kerry as an example of old-fashioned, pre-Clinton liberals.
(5) Echoed the general convention message that 9/11 equals Iraq, and that questioning how we are doing in Iraq questions America’s courage.
(6) Reinforced the personal message that he knows who he is and what he wants to do, even if he can’t explain it before or after the fact.
(7) Threaded an important needle by including mildly “self-deprecating” lines about his verbal challenges and his Texas swagger, without ever admitting a single mistake in how he’s run the country.
Predictably, the delegates were pretty quiet during the obligatory domestic stuff, really waking up when Bush checked the cultural conservative boxes of “respecting the unborn” and defending traditional marriage, and then getting into the groove of chanting “USA” and “Four More Years” when he boasted about the brilliant success of his foreign policies.
All in all, the speech reminded me of a moment at the end of the 2000 Democratic Convention, when I was standing on the floor amidst the balloon drop, and a friend of mine who worked for Gore came up to me and said: “Whaddya think? Ground Rule Double?”
Like Gore’s 2000 speech, Bush’s effort tonight struck me as tactically successful, but strategically questionable. To stretch the baseball metaphor, it was a Ground Rule Double, and not a home run, because it went over the fence thanks to the peculiar dynamics of the home park. These dynamics revolved around a convention where Bush’s explanation of his record and agenda were held to the minimal standard associated with world-historical figures like Reagan and Churchill, who had bigger fish to fry than such trivial matters as keeping their countrymen employed or managing the aftermath of “liberation” struggles.
Lest we forget, Churchill lost his first post-war election, and Reagan left office before the messy residue of his policies could interfere with his generally successful legacy.
For all the triumphalism and rhetorical overkill of this convention, it’s still unlikely that a majority of Americans revere George W. Bush enough to give him a pass on his domestic or international policies, or his meagre plans for the future.
We’ll see what the polls say, but I still believe this election is John Kerry’s to lose. Bush needed a big rally in New York, but it’s not clear he’s got a lead, and it is clear he doesn’t have a lead that’s safe going into the late innings.

Steak and Sizzle

If the climate of hysteria at their convention is tempting some GOPers to become overconfident, it’s also driving some Democrats into unnecessary panic. I can’t count the number of people I’ve talked to this week who are beside themselves with frustration that KE04 isn’t sufficiently “fighting back” against the crap being thrown against the wall in New York. And at least among those old enough to remember, they invariably cite the example of the ’88 Dukakis campaign, which “just stood there” and let Lee Atwater and the boys tear them apart.
But aside from the need for “rapid response,” there were two other lessons to be learned from the Dukakis defeat, which ought to be kept in mind today.
The first is that you can’t always choose the issues landscape. The Duke’s strategists didn’t fail to respond to the attacks on their candidate because they were sluggish or stupid. They were in thrall to the idea that you should campaign on “your issues” and not “their issues.” When the elder Bush’s thugs went after Dukakis on defense or cultural issues, he invariably responded with his message of “good jobs at good wages,” on the theory that talking about defense and cultural issues would just play into their opponent’s strength. Suffice it to say it didn’t work.
I mention this point because I’m also hearing a lot of Democrats complain that Kerry set up the Republicans for this week’s assault-and-battery by talking too much about national security–“their issue”–instead of hammering away on health care and the economy–“our issues.” Now think about it, folks. Does anyone really think the GOP Convention was ever going to be about anything other than national security and the war on terrorism, no matter how much Democrats yelled about other issues? If the Democratic nominee had failed to talk about “their issues,” the assault would have been even worse. And if that nominee had not been a war hero with a reputation for toughness on national security, it would have been much, much worse. Aside from the guaranteed focus of the GOP on this issue, there’s also the small problem that the public cares about it as well. The Republicans may be fanning the flames of fear all right, but there was already a fire.
The final lesson of the Dukakis campaign that should be remembered right now is that how quickly and how aggressively you respond to attacks is less important than what you say. “Rapid response” doesn’t do much good unless the response itself is credible and compelling. You gotta have the steak, not just the sizzle. When Dukakis got around to responding to the Bush-Quayle attacks, his answers were too often lame-o. (Remember Mikey in the Tank? Remember how he handled Bernie Shaw’s Rape-of-Kitty hypothetical on the death penalty?) Serving up these lame-o responses faster or at a higher volume wouldn’t have done much good.
Sure, Kerry needs to respond quickly and aggressively, but when he does, he needs two things above all: (1) a series of crisp, one-sentence responses to all the “flip-flop” charges, and (2) a simple, compelling Fall Message (not just a slogan) that enables him to connect his responses to the broader set of issues that he wants to talk about and Bush can’t.
I’m pretty sure the KE04 folks understand this. The rest of us nervous Democrats should let them work it out and not pressure them into meaningless frenetic activity.

Buying Their Own Spin

Nestled in a WaPo piece by Mike Allen and Jonathan Weisman on the second-term agenda that Bush is allegedly going to present tonight are two remarkable graphs:

Bush’s agenda consists almost entirely of expanded or repackaged ideas he has proposed before–partly because the deficit precludes major new programs. Outside economists said campaign strategists argued this week that the political terrain has shifted dramatically in the president’s favor and that specific proposals are unnecessary.
“The strategists are saying, ‘Everything is breaking our way. It looks like it’s almost over,'” said one close adviser who demanded anonymity. In this climate, the political strategists believe they have no reason to offer plans that would give opponents new targets to attack.

Now I have no doubt the Bushies would love to avoid the troublesome little chore of having to lay out a second-term agenda. But “It’s almost over“?
So far two national polls are out that reflect some of the impact of the convention. One, an ARG poll conducted August 30-September 1, shows Kerry up 2 among RVs. The other, a three-day-average tracking poll from Rasmussen, has Bush up 4 among LVs as of September 1. Unless BC04’s internal polling is showing something a lot more dramatic, it’s a tad early for these guys to be prancing around the end zone. Maybe they’re even committing the cardinal political sin of buying their own spin.
Remember: the Convention has given Republicans the opportunity to get voters to squint sideways at George W. Bush and John Kerry in the light most favorable–and perhaps the only light truly favorable–to the incumbent. But they’re not going to keep squinting sideways for two more months. Eventually, the two candidate’s actual records, and their actual proposals for the future, will get out there. And don’t forget that ol’ devil Objective Reality, which is not friendly to George W. Bush.
Objective Reality may dump a cloudburst on BC04 as early as tomorrow, when the latest monthly jobs report is released. Unless they’re playing rope-a-dope, administration officials act like they’re battening down the hatches for some ugly news.
And then there’s Iraq….


Zell Miller’s Republican handlers may or may not have made a mistake encouraging him to go up on the podium and howl at the moon last night. But they sure made a mistake letting him to go do a round of TV interviews afterwards, without spending some time in a decompression chamber.
During his first interview, on CNN, Judy Woodruff got him all flustered by asking the obvious question about his praise for Kerry’s defense record at a Georgia Democratic fundraiser three years ago. Miller wound up coming dangerously close to the ol’ George Romney “I was brainwashed” defense, essentially saying he was a “junior Senator” way back then who didn’t know what he was talking about.
Then Wolf Blitzer calmly pointed out that Dick Cheney as Defense Secretary had taken many of the same positions as Kerry on weapons systems during the late 80s and early 90s. Miller challenged that claim, but then retreated into incoherence, brandishing a sheaf of papers (maybe BC04 oppo research notes?), after Blitzer reminded him that he knew what he was talking about, having served as CNN’s Pentagon Correspondent in those days. The interview ended in embarrassed silence as Miller visibly struggled to regain his composure.
He should have called it a day, but instead appeared on “Hardball,” and after misunderstanding a question from Chris Matthews, said: “I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel.”
That’s the most honest thing Zell Miller said last night. He would have fit in much better back in those nineteenth century days when you picked sides in politics and just rolled in the mud. And if you decided to switch sides, you just moved to the other side of the ditch and rolled in the mud some more. If I believed in reincarnation, I’d suspect Zell Miller is the second coming of Andrew Johnson.

The Bigger Picture

If you want a big-picture reflection on the first three days of the convention, including a careful analysis of last night’s slander-o-thon, check out today’s New Dem Daily, entitled “The GOP Fun-House Mirror.”

Dogs of War

I suggested last week that the Republicans might “let slip the dogs of war” a bit earlier and more emphatically than they did in 2000. Boy, was that ever an understatement.
On an evening supposedly devoted to defending the administration’s economic record, the two big prime-time speakers, Zell Miller and Dick Cheney, unloaded a truckload of bile against John Kerry’s national security record. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard so many slurs, misleading inferences, and bold-face lies in the course of an hour of rhetoric. Miller didn’t bother to even mention the economy or any other domestic issue. Cheney barely did, and even then just trotted out the usual BC04 talking points with a notable lack of enthusiasm. This night was about destroying John Kerry, period.
Yesterday I wondered how Miller would explain his support for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. He didn’t even deign to mention, much less defend his strange transformation. But perhaps his own flip-flop led him to ignore that prong of the GOP attack on Kerry, and instead devote his entire speech to the argument that the Democratic candidate hates the military, hates his country, and would turn over the world to the French, if not to al Qaeda itself.
The Bushies supposedly thought Zell would help them win over swing voters. I have a hard time believing anybody was won over by this glowering rant. Not since Pat Buchanan’s famous “culture war” speech in 1992 has a major speaker at a national political convention spoken so hatefully, at such length, about the opposition. At the dark heart of the speech was the same old tired litany of lies and mischaracterizations about Kerry’s Senate votes on military spending and weapons systems that BC04 has been retailing for many months.
While Zell was too hot, Cheney was too cold, sounding more like a Haliburton exec speaking at a retirement dinner than a Vice President of the United States defending his administration’s record. Even his best attack lines, like the “John Kerry sees two Americas….America sees two John Kerrys” bit, were delivered with a tone of condescending sarcasm rather than conviction.
Unlike Miller, Cheney alternatively pursued both prongs of the attack on Kerry’s national security credentials: he’s a flip-flopper who always takes the wrong position. At some point, BC04 will have to make up its mind which one of these slurs it chooses to emphasize, and stick with it for a while. But clearly, this is a convention whose managers are not overly worried about logic. Inspired by the Swift Boat Veterans ads which they believe have turned the election completely around, the Bushies have gone negative with a real vengeance.

Zell’s Problem Graphically Presented

The Georgia Democratic Party has put up a video that you might want to watch before watching tonight’s Zell Miller speech. Even I had forgotten the strong parallels between Miller’s 1992 attack on George H.W. Bush and Kerry’s critique of his son today.

Zell’s Problem

Zell Miller’s “keynote” speech in NY tonight will obviously get a lot of attention. The DLC’s opinion on Zell’s apostasy is pretty clear, and can be found here and here.
But I’m interested, from a purely mechanical point of view, in seeing how Miller and his new GOP handlers deal with a certain logical problem about his speech. At some point, probably months ago, it dawned on BC04 operatives that Bush would be nominated in the same building where their new buddy Zell Miller gave the Democratic keynote address back in 1992. Hey, somebody said, wouldn’t it be cool to get Zell to keynote our convention?
The problem, of course, is that Zell’s return engagement in the Garden raises a pretty obvious question about what, exactly, happened between ’92 and now to convert him from a Bush-bashing partisan Democrat to a Kerry-bashing supporter of Bush the Younger. And as I assume at least someone in the media will remind viewers tonight (maybe CNN’s Paul Begala, who ghosted much of the ’92 speech), Miller did everything short of kicking Millie the First Dog to promote the eviction of W.’s dad from the White House back then.
Miller could obviously tell delegates he was wrong then, and right (not to mention Right) today. But at a time when much of the Convention is devoted to branding John Kerry as a flip-flopper, it probably won’t be helpful if the man once mocked by Georgia Republicans as “Zig-Zag Zell” suggests it’s possible to change your mind about anything.
Moreover, Miller has repeatedly rejected the apology route up until now. In his recent book, which many of his new right-wing friends probably haven’t actually read, he doesn’t for a moment apologize for supporting Clinton in ’92 or even in ’96. He suggests, instead, that the Democratic Party lurched off in a leftwards direction some time around 1998–roughly the same time that Miller moved to Washington and lost his bearings.
Call it a psychic flash, but I somehow don’t think Republican delegates are quite ready to applaud a speech that says: “If you liked Bill Clinton, you ought to love George W. Bush.”
My guess is that Miller will allude to his ’92 gig with a brief joke, and then spend the rest of his time churning out every anti-Kerry talking point he can download from the BC04 web page, nestled in a lot of faux-populist “humor” about the opposition of Democrats to the ownership of pickup trucks. But his speech does present a problem, and I hope the punditocracy gets over its dull-witted stupor in covering this Convention just enough to call him on it.

Slash and Burn

As some of you may remember, the Democratic Convention was characterized by a systematic refusal to “go negative” on George W. Bush, which probably disappointed a lot of delegates, but not so you’d notice it. In fact, with a very few exceptions, speakers were prohibited from even mentioning the incumbent’s name.
My understanding is that this especially hard line on negative rhetoric was taken after KE04 operatives focus-grouped a few speech drafts with undecided voters, and discovered that they absolutely hated anything that sounded like an attack on Bush.
It’s pretty obvious by now that the GOP has taken a different tack on going negative at its Convention. And it’s almost certain to get a lot worse tonight, with the headliners being Zell Miller, who loves negative rhetoric like a wino loves cheap muscatel, and Dick Cheney, who can barely take a breath without attacking Kerry and Edwards.
There are at least four possible explanations for the different approaches of the two parties on negative rhetoric:
1) The GOP truly has given up on undecided voters, and is truly concentrating on energizing its conservative base and maybe raiding a few conservative Democrats.
2) Voters hold a double standard whereby Democrats can’t get away with criticizing the Leader of the Free World, while it’s okay for the President’s party to call John Kerry a lyin’ liberal flip-flopper, so long as the invective does not come directly from the Compassionate-Conservative-in-Chief himself.
3) Republicans have become intoxicated by their belief that the Swift Vote Veterans ads have hurt Kerry, and have decided to throw out the rule book.
4) Rove and Co. know going negative is risky, but don’t think they have much choice at this point.
Of course, it’s also possible that today’s Republicans are just mean and nasty people who do this stuff because they enjoy it. But hey, I wouldn’t want to say anything that negative about them.

Hype Watch

I was pretty busy up in Boston, and didn’t watch much of the television coverage of the Democratic Convention. So you tell me: did the pundits gush over all the speeches like they’re doing in New York?
Best I can tell, most of the commentators, even those who are apparently supposed to be “objective” or even “pro-Democratic,” think Guiliani’s speech on Monday ranked up there with some of the best efforts of Demosthenes. And they clearly thought Arnold hit a Barry Bonds shot into the upper deck. (Personally, I thought the best podium appearance of the night was by the Bush Twins).
And hey, I was watching MSNBC and PBS. I didn’t have any blood pressure medication on hand, so I avoided Fox altogether. That was probably a smart move, according to WaPo’s wonderful TV critic, Tom Shales, who said this morning that Fox was covering the Convention like it’s a “happy birthday party for God.”
Maybe the entertainment paradigm for political media really has taken over, with commentators treating conventions like football games where ratings depend on the idea that every boring 7-3 contest is a Clash of Titans that will go down in the annals of sport.