If I’m right in suggesting that the Bush-Cheney campaign is in the process of pivoting towards an old-style Liberal!Liberal!Liberal! campaign seeking to Dukakisize John Kerry, a big part of the message will be that George W. Bush and his party are brave reformers seeking to bring Washington under control. That may seem preposterous to anyone who knows the iron partisan control the GOP exercises over the federal government today, but intellectual honesty just doesn’t matter at all to these guys.
What could really step on this message, of course, would be real-life events that expose the GOP’s power-lust, and its eager embrace of all the corruption that comes with political power, especially among people who actually oppose using government for any higher ends.
And that may be happening right now.
Tom DeLay, having set a new modern record for rebukes by the House Ethics Committee, is in serious trouble, with investigations continuing into his possible involvement in a whole host of sleazy tactics used by his friends to plan, finance, and engineer the Great Texas Power Grab–the GOP’s successful effort to force a second redistricting of TX congressional districts to pad the party’s margin in the House and further insulate DeLay and company from any troublesome meddling by voters.
But there’s another story that could pack even more dynamite against the GOP’s drive for perpetual control of Washington. The Senate investigation (led by retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and the very unretiring Sen. John McCain) of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is unfolding an incredibly tawdry tale of shakedowns and influence-peddling, involving a guy with close and deep connections with the whole rogue’s gallery of conservative gangbangers–Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist, to mention a few.
And speaking of our ol’ buddy Grover, his baleful influence was illustrated again today in the WaPo op-ed pages. You may recall that Grover got into a little hot water recently when he penned a column for a Spanish newspaper that cheerfully predicted the Democratic Party was literally dying off as those inveterate socialists of the Greatest Generation went off to the welfare state in the sky. Grover squawked that he was misquoted, but today that staid symbol of conservative respectability George Will recycled (without attribution) exactly the same argument in all its cynical and malicious glory. Indeed, Will managed to lower the tone of Norquist’s argument by adding the smear that fear of losing its funding base among trial lawyers and public employees is the only reason Democrats oppose Bush’s domestic agenda (conversely, BTW, Karl Rove has been known to argue that destroying the Democratic donor base is the primary reason his boss wants to enact tort reform and shrink the more progressive precincts of government).
Now, I obviously don’t know if the DeLay and Abramoff ethics probes represent tempests in a teapot or another Teapot Dome. And maybe I’m exaggerating the significance of a guy like George Will buying into the Norquist-Rove reduction of every public policy question into a scramble for cash. But we already know the Bush claim to be a “reformer with results” is nonsense, and that the GOP’s claim to be the anti-Washington party is outrageous nonsense. The question is whether the mask of deception will slip in time for voters to do something about it.
I’ve been figuring for a while now that BC04 would eventually begin to pivot at least partially from the “flip-flop” attacks on John Kerry to the more conventional conservative argument that JK is an old-fashioned, big-government, tax and spend liberal.
If Bush’s new stump speech, unveiled today in the NE Pennsylvania cockpit of one battleground state, is any indication, the pivot is fully underway. It’s a very primitive and totally negative speech, emblematic of a president who can’t claim the political center and thus is determined to shove his opponent to the fringes by sheer assertion and extensive misrepresentation of his record. Aside from focusing on some random 1972 Kerry statement on the role of the UN (we all know how substantive Bush was three decades ago, right?), the speech repeats the usual GOP lies about Kerry’s defense record; accuses Kerry of an inveterate desire to raise taxes and expand government; and heavily features the one-year “most liberal Senator” rating of Kerry by the National Journal, a claim the DLC demolished months ago.
It’s hard to believe that the president, whose fiscal record is a disaster, and whose administration and party bestride Washington like a colossus, is trying to make John Kerry the candidate of Big Government and of runaway federal spending. But if we know anything about BC04, it’s that it treats facts and reason, and the intelligence of the American people, with equal contempt.
Get ready for some real outrages.
If you want a Big Picture analysis of last night’s veep debate, check out today’s New Dem Daily.
The most my exhausted brain can manage is a list of Superlatives:
1. Best Pure Debate Point: After Edwards did his indictment of Halliburton, and Cheney declined to respond within the assigned thirty seconds, Edwards took the unused time and went through the same argument, word for word. Pull that one across the flow chart, judge.
2. Best Rebuttal: When Cheney did the usual trial-lawyer bashing number, Edwards responded in a way that (a) described the problem, (b) showed more emphathy than Cheney for doctors with high malpractice insurance premiums, and (c) came down emphatically on the side of injured regular folks–and with a personal anecdote to boot.
3. Cleverest Cheney Gambit: The veep’s reflection on the humble origins he shared with Edwards was smart for three reasons: (1) most Americans probably assume Cheney grew up with oil derricks in his back yard; (2) he needs something humble in his background to counterbalance his striking lack of humility today; and (3) it’s always good to identify with po’ folks when you have the demeanor of a bank president foreclosing a family farm, and you’re making the argument that rich people deserve more tax breaks.
4. Most Disingenuous Cheney Gambit: There’s a lot of competition for this one, but my fave was the veep’s sorrowful expression of bafflement about the decline of bipartisanship in Washington. That’s kind of like a strip mall developer wondering why the traffic’s getting so bad.
5. Best ripostes I wish Edwards Had Delivered: (1) When Cheney sneered about Edwards’ poor Senate attendance record, he might have responded: “With your party running the Congress, what’s the point of showing up? I haven’t missed anything important. Schedule some real business, and I’ll punch the clock.” (2) When Cheney claimed (inaccurately) that he had never met Edwards, he should have said: “It’s hard to meet a man who spent two solid years in an undisclosed secure location.”
6. Best Psych-War Tactic: KE04’s arragement to have Pat Leahy sitting in the front row,
7. Greatest Disconnect Between Words and Body Language: Cheney’s warm “thank-you” to Edwards for talking about his lesbian daughter. The Veep clearly wanted to repeat the anatomically impossible suggestion he made a few months ago to Leahy.
8. Best Zinger Edwards Couldn’t Use, But It Woulda Been Fun: Two nominations: (1) if Cheney had repeated Bush’s litany on Kerry’s terrible disrespecting of Brave Coalition Ally Poland: “The Polish government just announced it was pulling its troops out of Iraq by year’s end. As Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, Mr. Cheney should know better than to talk about Poland.” (2) After Cheney’s “global test” tirade: “I don’t know why the vice president is so hung up about this word “global.” The earth is a ‘globe,’ you know. It’s not flat. The economy’s not doing well. And your Iraq policies aren’t working.”
9. Most Questionable Sartorial Choice: Cheney’s red power tie was definitely coals-to-Newcastle. If I were him, I’d have fished out that Snoopy tie he received as a gag gift at the last Halliburton Christmas party.
10. Best Opening Line Either Candidate Could Have Used: [with a British accent:] HELLO CLEVELAND!
In the best blogger tradition, Amy Sullivan has decided to keep pointing out that the famously faith-based President of the United States doesn’t seem to go to church very often, and certainly hasn’t joined any congregation of believers. Her hope is that somebody on the campaign beat will start watching for signs of Bush’s relative interest in expressing solidarity with the Mystical Body of Christ (the term that both Bush’s Methodists and his family’s Episcopalians apply to the Church), much as they track John Kerry’s every approach to the altar rail.
In her latest post on the subject, for The New Republic, Sullivan disposes of all the excuses offered for Bush’s disinclination towards community worship, and points out that Republicans are forever citing frequency of church attendance as a key dividing line between the Red State faithful and the Blue State spiritual slackers. Moreover, she rightly suggests the question is relevant because Bush himself has made his faith so central an issue in his presidency, and his campaign.
I’m reminded of a famous quote from a less culturally polarized time in our history, when a reporter asked the wife of Mr. Republican, Senator Robert Taft, where he worshipped on Sunday mornings. She blurted out: “At Burning Tree,” naming the congressional golf course.
In a new post on the New Republic site, John Judis sifts through the evidence about new voter registrations in a number of battleground states. His conclusion is that Dems are doing a lot better than their rivals in the Midwest, while they’re trying to catch up with earlier Republican efforts in Florida.
Remember, though: boosting voter registration is just stage one of the Ground Game. The real key is voter turnout. And I remain convinced that Dems will have a big advantage there, because (1) high-turnout elections currently favor Democrats, (2) the peripheral voters most likely to vote Democratic are more geographically concentrated, making turnout efforts more efficient, and (3) Democrats are investing a lot more money and people in turnout efforts than the opposition.
And also remember this: you gotta get close to even in the “air war” for persuadable voters before the Ground Game really matters. Current polls are generally showing that Kerry is now drawing even with Bush. And as Mark Penn notes in today’s WaPo, the CW that there are no “swing” voters this year is rather obviously being undermined by the large swings in support for Bush and Kerry over the last month.
Back when the blogosphere was in its infancy, one of the most influential and entertaining blogs was Marshall Wittmann’s McCainiac site The Bull Moose. While The Moose took shots at Democratic Orthodoxy on more than one occasion, his real ire was aimed at the desecration of the Republican Party by the unholy alliance of Neo-Gilded Age corporate cronies and the organized Religious Right–the very forces that spearheaded George W. Bush’s savage 2000 primary campaign against John McCain.
Wittman shut down his blog upon answering the call of duty and going to work for McCain as his legislative director. But now that McCain has decided to cast his lot with the Elephants one more time, The Moose has sprung loose of the GOP and has gone to work for the DLC and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. Here’s a link to his explanation of his decision to defect, and of his belief that John Kerry offers a far greater possibility for a revival of the Teddy Roosevelt progressive tradition than the unreformed and money-mad Bush-era Republicans.
Soon Wittman will bring back the Bull Moose blog in some form. NewDonkey welcomes him to the DLC menagerie.
While watching my Georgia Bulldogs demolish LSU this weekend, I couldn’t help but think about the last time I watched these two teams play. ‘Twas early December of last year, and I was visiting a friend of mine who was working for John Kerry in New Hampshire. This was the absolute nadir of the Kerry campaign; he was trailing HoDean by more than 30 points in NH, and had just begun to shift staff and money to Iowa in a high-stakes gamble to revive his candidacy there. The Boston press was pounding its junior senator day in and day out, and every sign pointed to a humiliating defeat.
Kerry’s staffers were putting on a brave front, and were still working insane hours (I watched my friend spend 30 minutes in a restaurant trying to talk our waitress into attending one of those ubiquitous firehouse chili dinners). But there was a smell of death about the whole thing.
Thanks to a blizzard that shut the campaign down for a day, I was able to talk my buddy and a couple of other pols into watching the SEC championship game. It was a brutal LSU wipeout, just not competitive at all, made worse by the fact that we ran out of food and beer during the first quarter. I left Manchester the next day feeling like I had escaped the Village of the Damned.
It’s hard to believe that was just ten months ago. The recent brief swoon of the Kerry campaign–which has apparently ended–was laughably minor compared to what it went through just weeks before its Iowa and New Hampshire wins. The cliche is that Kerry is a “good closer.” Where I come from, we’d say his campaign is a fourth-quarter football team.
P.S.–Let me be clear that no, I am suggesting any ties between the University of Georgia football team and John Kerry, or between LSU and George W. Bush (or Howard Dean, for that matter). I actually love the “Gret Stet of Loosiana” and all its honorable traditions of both football and politics.
In case you missed it, the new Gallup/USA Today/CNN poll (taken October 1-3–after the first presidential debate) has Kerry and Bush tied at 49 among LVs. The last Gallup had Bush up 8; the one before that showed a 13-point Bush lead.
This is significant because Gallup has consistently shown Bush as stronger than most other pollsters, sparking a big debate in the blogosphere about its partisan weighting scheme and other geeky controversies.
The poll’s internals include two especially interesting findings. Most of the “character” and “issues” questions show a modest, but not dramatic, trend towards Kerry since the last Gallup. But the poll asked two new “character” questions: which candidate “expresses himself more clearly” (Kerry 54, Bush 41) and “is intelligent” (Kerry 48, Bush 38, with 11 saying “both” and 1 saying “neither”). Could it be that some Americans are beginning to think it might be a good idea to have an articulate and intelligent president? How French of them!
The new Gallup also shows that Camp Kerry decisively won the post-debate spin wars. On the night of the debate, Gallup found that Americans thought Kerry won the contest by a 57-37 margin. In the latest poll, the margin grew to 59-25.
Everything about this poll suggests a dead-even race. It will be interesting to see if Gallup is again an outlier in showing Bush doing relatively well. The next batch o’ polls should give us an idea.
I noted in my last post that the fall-back attack line the GOP is pursuing on Kerry and Edwards in addition to the “flip-flop” charge is to accuse the Democrats of being old-fashioned tax-and-spend, Big Government liberals who are also weak on defense. But while these would appear to be logically inconsistent charges, there is a theme that connects them: Democrats are the party of Washington, where Big Government and duplicity go hand in hand. This theme, moreover, enables Bush to avoid responsibility for the performance of the federal government on his watch, and to pose once again as a “reformer” struggling against high odds to fix the mess on the Potomac.
From any objective point of view, this line of argument is truly grotesque. Republicans completely control the executive and legislative branches of the federal government (and arguably, viz. Bush v. Gore, the judicial branch as well). And they are running Washington with a degree of partisanship, ideological zeal, and power-lust that exceeds the worst excesses of the long period of Democratic control. The GOPers have deliberately engineered budget deficits through both tax and spending policies. The size of the federal workforce is rising again after declining during the Clinton years, even if you don’t count the explosion of federal contractors. Both these trends are reflected in the robust economy of the DC area, where the theme song of Republican rule could be Happy Days Are Here Again.
So: why isn’t every Democratic candidate for federal office railing against those WashingtonRepublicans? It’s a mystery even deeper than Al Gore’s reluctance to run on the successful record of his own administration in 2000. I discuss this anomaly incessantly with a wide array of Republicans (who chuckle happily about it) and Democrats, and have heard two basic theories. One is that Democrats believe government is “their” institution, even if they don’t control it. The other is that they believe bashing Washington will discourage the Democratic “base,” and have decided instead to bash corporations like Enron and Halliburton.
I hope the first theory isn’t true, because it actually reinforces the Republican claim to be the anti-Washington party, even as they swell with the power and influence of controlling Washington top to bottom. And the second theory reflects an understanding of the electorate that’s simply wrong.
As a soon-to-be-released DLC study will show, both independent voters and “peripheral” voters (those who often don’t vote but might–i.e., the object of Democratic turnout efforts) lean towards Democrats in favoring an activist government that tries to address big national challenges. But they also are hostile to government as an institution, and want to be reassured that government can be made efficient and responsible for results. In other words, exploiting Republican control of a big, fat, debt-ridden government that doesn’t accomplish much of anything is a message that helps Democrats with both of their big targets in this election cycle.
The DLC has long argued that Democrats need to understand that anti-government populism trumps anti-corporate populism, every day of the week. But this year, Democrats don’t have to choose: Republicans are using big government to entrench economic privilege. The GOP is on the horns of a dilemma, and Democrats would be smart to keep them there rather than letting them pretend they care about Big Business more than the Big Government they have placed at its service.
Perhaps the sheer hubris of Republican claims of hostility to Washington will wake Democrats up to the political opportunity they have been given, and to the political liability they invite if they pretend the federal government is still “theirs.” Letting a party led by George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum pose as brave reformers of a corrupt Imperial City is just plain wrong.
Sorry for the absence of posts over the last two days. I was at this Fiscal New Year party, and things got out of hand, and the bail bondsman wouldn’t answer his cell phone…. No, I’m joking. I’ve been moving since Thursday, and am finally back online amidst boxes, cleaning supplies, and a menagerie of disoriented cats and dogs.
Bailing out of the chattering classes for a couple of days enables me to hit the refresh button and look at the presidential race without the distraction of all the post-debate spin. It looks like, at long last, we’re back to where things stood in April or May, before the pre-Boston Kerry Surge and the post-New York Bush Surge had people thinking this thing might not be a nail-biter after all. Kerry’s focus is Bush’s record at home and abroad. Bush’s focus, just as it was in the spring, is the endless pounding of Kerry as a flip-flopper. Bush’s approval ratings have gone up slightly, but the closer we get to November 2, the harder it will be to raise them further. And it continues to appear this will be a high-turnout election where Democrats have an advantage in the ability to selectively boost turnout.
The only enduring trend since the spring that favors Bush is the narrowing of the battleground. Kerry has more “must-win” battleground states than the incumbent, including one (Wisconsin) where Bush seems to have a really surprising lead. Ohio and Florida remain the big prizes. There’s some evidence Kerry has closed the gap in Ohio after a couple of weeks of polls showing a large Bush lead. And no one really knows what’s going on in water-logged and distracted Florida.
The one thing that’s clear about the two remaining presidential debates, and the veep debate on Tuesday, is that Kerry and Edwards have an inherently easier mission than the incumbents. They must simply rebut the flip-flop charge, without falling into the trap of the GOP’s backup attack theme, that they are tax-and-spend big government liberals who are weak on defense. Bush and Cheney must deal with their record, and with the objective reality that record has produced. That’s much more of an immovable object.