washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Is Kerry Crossing a Threshold?

I didn’t say this in last night’s post, but I was a little surprised at Kerry’s big margin in the snap polls about debate performance. They keep rolling in, and if the last two debates are a precedent, the “Kerry won” perception may grow even stronger in a day or two.
There are three possible explanations for this apparent gap between my perceptions of the debate and those of voters.
First, I may have just been wrong in thinking the debate was pretty much a tie, probably because I spent more time shouting cool lines I thought Kerry should use at the screen than in really paying attention to how the debate was going.
Second, voters may be making a cumulative judgment about the relative performance of the candidates in all three debates, a measurement that Kerry would definitely win among everybody other than Bush partisans.
Or third, something more fundamental may be going on: Kerry may be crossing the magic threshold of credibility that enables challengers to beat incumbent presidents. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened as a result of televised debates: as all you political junkies know, it happened in 1980 when the one televised debate pivoted the whole election in the direction of Ronald Reagan, who just didn’t come across as the shallow right-winger depicted by Jimmy Carter’s campaign.
Even if this third hypothesis has merit, I’m certainly not suggesting that John Kerry’s about to blow the race open and win by a landslide. The political dynamics of the country are far too polarized for either candidate to win over that many votes. There’s plenty of time before election day–time BC04 will use relentlessly to re-smear Kerry and drive up his negatives (though it sure didn’t work in 1980 for Carter whose late-campaign negative tactics were described at the time as “Mean Jimmy”). And again, this whole idea may be wrong.
But I for one am going to pay special attention to Kerry’s “internals” in the next couple of big nonpartisan national polls. Democracy Corps already has a post-debate poll out, and it shows a sizeable shift in positive voter perspections of Kerry as a leader. If others show the same trend, then we may rightly conclude that Kerry’s begun to close the deal with those undecided voters who (if their “wrong track” numbers are any indication) are itching for a reason to vote against Bush.
We’ll know soon enough.

Third Debate: Bush’s Lost Chance

Just saw CNN’s snap (who won?) poll of the last presidential debate: Kerry 52%, Bush 39%.
What’s fascinating about this reaction is that (1) it cannot be attributed to Bush’s demeanor, which was better in this debate than in either of the first two; (2) it doesn’t reflect some slam-dunk, soundbite Kerry line that affected the immediate reaction, though the “Sopranos” line was pretty good; and (3) it indicated that Bush’s “base-first” strategy isn’t working.
I personally expected Bush to go much more negative on Kerry that he ultimately did, though the structure and sequence of Schieffer’s questions made that pretty hard. And when the light want off in his head, Bush did everything he could to label Kerry as a godless liberal.
The bottom line is that it’s difficult, as an incumbent president, to shift the attention totally away from one’s own record. That’s the bar that Gerald Ford failed to surmount in 1976, as did Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the president’s father in 1992.
If, as seems likely in the immediate reaction, Kerry has gone 3-0 in the presidential debates, the case for George W. Bush’s re-election has gone from implausble to improbable, at the worst possible time for a vulnerable incumbent.

Bush and Carter

Going into tonight’s final presidential debate, you hear a lot of Democrats–or at least the grey-headed donkeys of the stable–reminiscing about that crucial moment in the 1980 presidential debate when Ronald Reagan managed to frame the election as a referendum on Jimmy Carter’s performance in office by asking the famous question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Wouldn’t it be cool, they say, if John Kerry could come up with a killer line like Reagan’s?

But you don’t hear anybody talking about Jimmy Carter’s strategy in that debate, and how it compares to that of another vulnerable incumbent, George W. Bush.
To make a long story short, Carter’s debate strategy was called the “Two Futures” approach. It involved constantly comparing the two candidates’ agendas for the future in a way that avoided Carter’s own record, and made Reagan the riskier choice for positive change.
From all indications, George W. Bush doesn’t much want to talk about his record on domestic issues, but also doesn’t much want to talk about his agenda for a second term. But he does want to talk about the risky choice involved in electing a scary liberal like John Kerry to the presidency. It’s sort of a “One Bad Future” approach that depends heavily on a negative characterization of his opponent.
So sure, it would be nice for Kerry if he can find a way to encapsulate Bush’s failed presidency in a compelling way tonight, and during the remainder of the campaign. But by eschewing both a defense of his own record, and a positive argument for his own agenda, Bush is in some respects fighting with one hand tied behind his back, as a deliberate strategic decision. No matter how the scorekeepers rate tonight’s contest, this will be a factor of increasing importance in the ultimate contest on November 2.

Kerry’s Catholicism

One of the subterranean issues in the presidential contest is the Democratic candidate’s status as a member of the Roman Catholic Church. He’s the first Catholic nominee since another Massachusetts Democrat with the same initials, and that is a potential problem for a Republican Party that’s been working overtime to turn Catholics into a GOP constituency group.
Today’s New York Times has a big writeup about one aspect of the Republican strategy to blunt or even invert the electoral impact of Kerry’s Catholicism: the campaign by a handful of conservative Bishops to convince Catholics they have a religious duty to reject their co-religionist because of his positions on abortion and stem-cell research, and his rejection of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. There’s a lot of evidence that it’s not exactly the right moment for elements of the American hierarchy to get too high and mighty about lecturing the laity on their moral obligations, but that won’t stop them from trying.
Aside from the effort to convince voters that Kerry’s a bad Catholic, there’s a slightly subtler BC04 argument that he’s not much of a Catholic at all, being a “liberal” and a “moral relativist” and a “flip-flopper,” etc., in comparison with the resolute Christian in the White House (never mind that Kerry seems to go to church a lot more often than Bush).
Kerry himself has followed the quaint custom (more common among American Catholics than evangelical Protestants) of trying to keep his religion out of the campaign; as he put it in his acceptance speech in Boston, he doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve.
But for the record, here’s what Kerry said about the political implications of his faith in his 2003 book, A Call to Service:

I am a believing and practicing Catholic, married to another believing and practicing Catholic. And being an American Catholic at this particular moment in history has three particular implications for my own point of view as a candidate for the presidency.
The first two follow directly from the two great commandments set for in the Scriptures: our obligation to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The first commandment means we must believe there are absolute standards of right and wrong. They may not always be that clear, but they exist, and we must honor them as best we can.
The second commandment means that our commitment to equal rights and social justice, here and around the world, is not simply a matter of political fashion or economic and social theory but a direct commandment from God. From this perspective “Christian” bigotry and intolerance are nothing less than a direct affront to God’s law and a rejection of God’s love.
There’s a third facet of being an American Catholic that I take very seriously. We’ve always been a minority in this country, and have sometimes suffered persecution. To a larger extent than Catholics elsewhere, we have supported and relied upon the constitutional principle of separation of church and state to guarantee our right to worship and our liberty of conscience. That tradition, strongly advanced by John Kennedy in his quest to become our first Catholic president, helped make religious affiliation a nonissue in American politics. It should stay that way.

GOP Congress Finally Does Something

After compiling one of the least distinguished records in living memory (as Casey Stengal used to say: “You could look it up”), the Republican leaders of Congress bestirred themselves to pass legislation yesterday, before sending their members home to campaign for re-election.
Unfortunately, the legislation was a classic Christmas Tree of special interest provisions that boosted the federal budget deficit and made almost every editorial writer in the country gag. Read all about it in today’s New Dem Daily.

Lesbians Run Wild in the Sooner State

Anytime you get bored with this election cycle, you can always count on Dr. Tom Coburn, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma, to liven things up.
The latest from Mad Tom is a late-August comment at a town hall meeting that’s just come to light. According to the Tulsa World, Coburn told the crowd about a conversation he’d had with a local state representative: “He was telling me lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they’ll only let one girl go to the bathroom. Now, think about it. Think about that issue. How is it that that’s happened to us?”
How indeed?
After the World found a few SE Oklahoma educators who expressed puzzlement over the suggestion that their region had become unusually Sapphic, Coburn’s flack–pausing to attack opponent Brad Carson as a “pro-gay rights” candidate with “Hollywood liberal values”–said the Doctor’s remarks had been “taken out of context.”
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m going to pay special attention over the next few days to see what context the Coburn campaign comes up with to “explain” this howler. Maybe the candidate added a few lines about the boys’ restrooms, too.

Rove Reverts To Type

Today’s NYT tells you most of what you need to know about the President’s re-election strategy going into the home stretch. Elisabeth Bumiller reports on Bush’s savage new stump speech, first unveiled in PA last week. As I noted when the speech first went up on the BC04 web page, the speech is almost entirely a negative attack on Kerry, and almost entirely based on distortions of the challenger’s record and unsupported name-calling. Bumiller notes that all the positive stuff about the administration’s record has been dumped out of the speech, apparently at the insistence of Karl Rove. (A separate AP story observes that neither Karl Rove nor Karen Hughes can take a breath without calling Kerry a “liberal”).
A front-page Pear and Toner piece in the Times on the new Medicare Rx drug benefit helps explain why Bush doesn’t want to go into the final presidential debate all puffed up about his domestic record. It’s clear by now that the discount drug card that was the first phase of the new initiative has been pretty much a bust so far; by and large seniors don’t like it, and don’t trust it. And remember: this was supposed to be the easy part of the initiative, the no-pain, first-course-dessert that would make everybody happy before the broccoli is served in 2006, when the full Medicare drug coverage, with its convoluted premium structure and ever-escalating costs, is implemented.
Rove, of course, would probably urge Bush to go negative even if he did have something positive to talk about. You may have heard about Josh Green’s profile of Rove in the latest (subscription only) Atlantic Monthly. Green makes a very astute observation about Rove’s history that may show why his faith in negative campaigning is so strong, and why it might be misplaced today. Most of Rove’s past campaigns were in two states–Texas and Alabama–that were at the time loaded with conservative, ticket-splitting Democrats likely to swing Republican in an ideologically polarized election. In that atmosphere, relentlessly attacking a Democratic candidate as a godless liberal simultaneously served the GOP’s base-moblization and swing voter strategies. But few battleground states today are anything like Texas and Alabama in the ’80s and ’90s. If Bush stays negative right on through to election day, he will (a) help Democrats with their own turnout strategy, and (b) quite possibly alienate swing voters who are already unhappy with the incumbent’s record.
The other possible flaw in Rove’s strategy is that he may be overestimating the willingness of both the news media and the public to swallow the poisonous distortions of Kerry’s record and agenda that his candidate is so shamelessly spewing into the air waves.
As revealed by Drudge, The Note’s Mark Halperin sent a memo to his ABC colleagues warning them not to simply report exchanges between the campaigns as morally equivalent, because: “The current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done.” Josh Marshall notes that Fox News is already trying to Ratherize Halperin (an absurd characterization given The Note’s unctuous treatment of BC04 throughout the campaign), and I’m sure other conservative media will follow. It will be interesting–not to mention important–to see if the rest of the political world will go along with the idea that the president’s flat-out lies about Kerry’s record should be treated as no more negative than Kerry’s efforts to point out what’s actually happening in Iraq.
I’ll say this: if Bush wins this thing by following Rove’s strategy, it will have a baleful effect on political campaigns here and around the world for years to come. So much for Bush’s interest in spreading the blessings of democracy.

Battle For Big MO

Last night’s “town-hall” presidential debate in Missouri was about what I expected. The two things Bush most wanted to do–to get over the defensive stammering and fidgeting and incoherent repetitions of his first debate peformance, and to aggressively Dukakisize Kerry as a tax-and-spend-weak-on-defense-big-government-liberal–led him to an unusually combative manner. And indeed, Bush was most effective rhetorically when he was distorting Kerry’s record and reinforcing every old Democratic stereotype, and least effective when he had to defend his own record. Kerry won most of the debating points, and generally repeated his strong first-debate performance, though he got tripped up a bit on two cultural issues towards the end.
Much of the buzz about the debate seems to revolve around Bush’s manner. I suspect voter reactions to his banty rooster routine last night–strutting around the stage and shouting and crowing–will break down on partisan lines. Republicans will see it as a projection of strength and likeability; Democrats as grating and exaggerated.
On foreign policy and security issues, including Iraq, the second debate changed nothing, which is bad news for the incumbent.
As in the veep debate, the discussion of domestic issues was a little thin, but very interesting. Kerry cleaned Bush’s clock on the drug-reimportation issue, the one moment when the incumbent fell back into the defensive incoherence of the first debate.
Bush had two other very weird moments. Asked about his record on the environment, the president barked: “Off-road diesel engines,” a good example of a talking point headline leaping directly to the tongue of an overbriefed debater. And in the discussion of his judicial philosophy, Bush made it clear he had one absolute litmus test for Supreme Court candidates: he wouldn’t appoint a justice who supported the 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding the Fugitive Slave Act.
This reassuring statement should boost Bush’s support levels among African-Americans all the way up into the high single digits.
On the inter-related issues of taxes, the budget, and “big government,” Bush again tried to keep the focus on Kerry, not himself–a revealing tactic, since his tax cuts are the sum and substance of his whole economic and fiscal record. Most interestingly, Bush didn’t put much effort into the claim that Kerry’s tax proposals would boost taxes for the middle class; instead, he simply asserted that Kerry’s the kind of guy–you know, a tax-and-spend liberal–who’ll raise everybody’s taxes first chance he gets.
Even though I knew it was coming, I nearly attacked the screen when Bush trotted out the bogus National Journal “most liberal senator” rating of Kerry in 2003. I guess I’m going to have to personally hand-deliver the DLC’s analysis of that rating–and especially its bizarre description of deficit-reduction measures as “liberal”–to every journalist in Christendom.
I was delighted to see Kerry mention that the president’s party controls Congress. He should do a lot more of that down the stretch. And on the tax issue, he would be well advised to remind voters that small businesses–and for that matter, millionaires–did a whole lot better under the tax rates of the Clinton years than they are doing today.
Surprisingly, there were no questions about gay marriage. And the abortion question posed to Kerry was a real curve-ball, asking him to specifically address himself to people who think abortion is “murder” (not exactly the formulation you’d expect from an undecided voter), and to the question of government funding for abortions, an issue that hasn’t been the focus of abortion politics for about fifteen years.
Similarly, the question about stem-cell research was worded in the way best suited to Bush’s purposes–distinguishing between adult and embryonic stem cells. This got the discussion immediately down into the technical weeds, and enabled Bush to cut through the details and claim he’s just trying to balance ethics and science. I suspect Kerry will find a way to nail him on this one in the third debate.
Neither candidate committed any obvious gaffes, but Bush’s answer to the very last question was one of those things that post-debate analysis could turn into real problem for the incumbent, because it reinforces a basic aspect of the candidate’s character that voters find troublesome. Asked directly to name three mistakes he’s made as president, Bush couldn’t do it, though he vaguely talked about appointments he now regrets. As Josh Marshall acutely observed in his take on the debate, you just know Bush was thinking about administration officials like Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, George Tenet, and John DiIulio–people who had the temerity to suggest the president had made mistakes.
Bush’s chronic refusal to admit mistakes when even his strongest supporters acknowledge them is beginning to look downright pathological, and if it continues, it could undermine all of his positive “character” and “likeability” ratings.
So: who if anyone got the Big Mo–in MO and in other battleground states–from this debate? I suspect the answer depends strictly on how you think the race was developing prior to last night.
Many Bush partisans think the president was cruising towards an easy and inevitable win prior to the first debate; they will naturally now claim his performance last night will put him back on the glide pattern to victory.
I think the first debate simply helped bring the contest back to its natural dead-even state, and that a whole host of factors–Kerry’s steadiness, bad news at home and abroad, Democratic advantages in the ground game, and most of all, the natural tendency of late-breaking voters to focus on, and turn against, the incumbent’s record–favor the challenger down the stretch.

Reality Rolls In

As Political Animal Kevin Drum pointed out earlier this week, these are tough times for those administration spinners who are trying to convince the country that the bluebird of happiness is sitting on George W. Bush’s shoulder. Day after day, BC04 upbeat talk about Iraq, past, present, and future, is getting hammered by reality. The polls have turned on W. The resolute, confident commander-in-chief we saw in New York morphed into a self-parody in last week’s debate. The Republican Congress is about to go home in a blaze of pork and ethics scandals, having accomplished less than any Congress in recent history.
And to top it off, today’s Final Job Numbers confirm that Bushonomics has basically deployed a couple of trillion dollars in deficit spending to produce a tepid and shaky recovery characterized by wage stagnation and rising insecurity.
This is the reality that Bush must try to distort, explain, or ignore in tonight’s debate. I suspect his performance tonight won’t be as bad as the last. The president’s handlers have undoubtedly retrained him in that lip-pursing thing he uses to suppress the frat-boy smirk that reappeared so alarmingly in the first debate. Maybe the town-hall format will enable him to show off his famous rapport with regular guys.
But my guess is that Bush will go savagely negative on Kerry tonight, packing the best sound-bite put-downs money can buy. With the reality of the Bush record beginning to roll in like a toxic fog, making the election a referendum on his opponent is about the last play left for George W. Bush.

The ComCon

Remember “compassionate conservatism,” the alleged new ideology of non-bureaucratic activism on social problems that Bush trademarked in 2000? It’s back, in the president’s rhetoric at least. Indeed, you’ll probably hear quit a bit it in tonight’s debate (gotta do something to fill the void left by all those “this is hard work” references, which became such a universal object of derision).
The “compassionate conservative” label is a classic Karl Rove two-fer: (1) it’s reassuring to the millions of Americans who aren’t too keen about old-fashioned, uncompassionate conservatism of the Newt Gingrich, let-em-go-to-orphanages variety; and (2) it’s appealing to the religious conservatives of the GOP base, who do generally believe the Lord wants them to help the poor and sick along with banning abortion and gay relationship and building a missile defense system. The Christian Right also, of course, likes the so-called Faith-Based Organizations initiative that’s been the centerpiece of the ComCon agenda.
But like so many signature Bush initiatives–indeed, like all of them that don’t involve cutting taxes for the wealthy or invading Iraq–the reality behind the rhetoric is pretty feeble. If only to get yourself ready to hoot at the screen tonight, you should definitely check out a new Progressive Policy Institute study that concludes Bush has done little or nothing to advance his “compassionate conservative” agenda. Most astounding, when you think about it, is that despite the three separate major tax bills he’s pushed through Congress, Bush hasn’t lifted a finger to implement his biggest ComCon proposal: making charitable contributions deductible for non-itemizers. In fact, given the baleful impact on charities of Bush’s drive to eliminate the estate tax, and the lousy economy, it’s pretty clear his term in office has been a terrible experience for both religious and secular charities.
The PPI study makes it abundantly clear that ComCon is just a con. It would be nice if the president were willing to admit it and say: “Compassion… that’s a word they use in Washington, DC.”