Boy, if the President’s re-election really does depend on an excited conservative base, today’s news is not very helpful to The Cause. You got Dick Cheney dissing Bush’s position on a gay marriage amendment, at considerable length, perhaps subtly undermining the Right’s claim that Western Civilization hangs in the balance. You got Bill Frist, once on the conservative short list for the succession to Bush, co-authoring an op-ed on health care with Hillary Rodham Clinton. And you got conservative pundit and author of Bush’s famous “Axis of Evil” sound-bite, David Frum, advising pro-choice, pro-gay-rights Mayor Rudy Guiliani on how to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 (sorry, no link here; it’s in the subscription-only Wall Street Journal).
The Cheney statement appears to have taken culture-warriors by surprise. The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins (no relation to the star of “Psycho”) was reduced to whining about the Vice President’s lack of message discipline, which is rather disturbing given Cheney’s stature as the administration’s Great Big Grownup. And the Veep sure stepped all over the Republican Platform Committee’s decision to enthusiastically endorse the idea, if not the ontological necessity, of a constitutional gay marriage ban.
I decided not to include today’s other big story–the blue-ribbon panel report drawing a direct link between the Pentagon’s poor post-war planning and the prisoner abuses at Al Ghraib–in the litany of base-deflating developments. That’s because my unscientific sampling of rank-and-file conservative opinion, particularly in my own extended family, has convinced me that a fair number of people on the Right think torturing and humiliating prisoners is on balance not that bad an idea, so long as we don’t let the womenfolk get involved.
Noam Scheiber, author of The New Republic’s “&c” blog, took notice of the same Ron Browstein piece on Bush’s base-o-centric strategy that I highlighted yesterday. But while I cast cold water on the idea that BC04 could make up for its weakness among undecided voters by winning the turnout wars, Noam’s take is that the GOPs attention to the base is defensive, aimed at dealing with conservative disgruntlement over administration policies. Either way, it’s not a good sign for Bush.
But Scheiber also suggests that Brownstein is buying into some sort of devious GOP spin by taking seriously their talk of writing off swing voters. If that’s the case, he says, “Then why’d the White House even bother with things like prescription drugs, immigration reform, and the Mars mission–things they knew had a high probability of pissing off conservatives?”
Well, Noam, the answer’s simple: Karl Rove did have a swing voter strategy, but it has failed.
It had four prongs:
(1) Winning over married women with kids through the No Child Left Behind education reform initiative. Thanks to its poor implementation of NCLB, the White House has managed to anger anti-testing zealots on the left and local-control freaks on the right, without getting much credit from those who like the basic idea but think it’s been bungled.
(2) Buying the votes of seniors with a Rx drug benefit. That’s been an even bigger woofer. Seniors hate the new initiative, and won’t even sign up for the least controversial part, the drug discount cards.
(3) Making gains with Latinos through a “guest worker” proposal. Best I can tell, the proposal hasn’t moved a single Latino voter in the President’s direction, though it did royally honk off the ever-present if quiescent xenophobic wing of the Republican Right. That’s probably why you haven’t heard anything about it lately.
(4) Cutting into the Democratic margin among Jews by conspicuously identifying the administration with the embattled Israeli government of Ariel Sharon. According to the one relevant poll of American Jews, released just last week, Bush is running no better with this constituency than he did in 2000–which is to say, horribly.
In other words, the Bushies may be resorting to a “conservative turnout” strategy because they don’t have any other choice at this late date. Karl Rove, whom the President reportedly likes to call “the man with the plan,” had a plan for swing voters, but it hasn’t worked, and there’s no Plan B.
In case you’re wondering why the Bush-Cheney campaign has gotten so down-and-dirty, consider their options.
They can’t crow too much about the administration’s accomplishments, other than the absence, so far, of any further terrorist attacks on the U.S.
They don’t want the President to be measured by the promises he made in 2000, such as “changing the tone in Washington,” extending prosperity to the forgotten corners of America, or introducing humility into our foreign policy.
They sure as hell can’t suggest that voters ask themselves if they are better off than they were four years ago.
And having staked his re-election campaign to an effort to get conservatives all whipped up into a hate frenzy, they can’t abandon their habit of pandering to the Right by repositioning their guy towards the political center.
So: they’re pretty much stuck with the strategy of pushing John Kerry out of the center by (1) claiming he’s even more of an extremist than the incumbent, and (2) raising every conceivable doubt about Kerry’s character and credibility. And that’s the strategy they’ve very consistently pursued now for months.
There is, of course, a bit of an internal logical problem in claiming that Kerry is a godless, flag-hating, tofu-munching lefty who has no principles. But it’s no more of a stretch than the standard Republican claim that the way to achieve fiscal responsibility is to run the largest possible budget deficits.
The Republican Convention will offer interesting evidence about exactly how negative the Bush-Cheney campaign intends to get, and the precise extent to which the GOP is willing to identify the President and Vice President of the United States with the defamation of John Kerry, as opposed to letting semi-anonymous thugs like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth carry their dirty water. Four years ago in Philadelphia, puzzled delegates spent two full days listening to happy talk from every black, brown, and/or moderate figure the GOP could find to drag to the podium, before Dick Cheney finally gave the protein-starved assemblage their first taste of Clinton-hating red meat. They may let slip the dogs of war a bit earlier in New York.
Today’s WaPo has wall-to-wall coverage of the Swift Boat Veterans smear of Kerry, and Bush’s evasions on the subject. The two main arguments Bush partisans are offering in defense of the smear essentially boil down to: “So’s your old man,” and “You asked for it.” The first, in a classic of bogus moral equivalency and apes-on-the-treadmill reasoning, claims that Democratic 527 ads criticizing Bush justify whatever lies Republicans choose to tell about Kerry. And the second, even worse, suggests that JK’s focus on his Vietnam service during the Democratic Convention makes whatever lies Republicans choose to tell about Kerry relevant to the campaign.
Josh Marshall offers the best analysis of the whole controversy, in a long series of posts dating back to last week. Josh is one of the calmest, most reasonable voices in the blogosphere, but his anger at the Bushies and their friends for resorting to this kind of tactic is incandescent.
The headline of Ron Brownstein’s state-of-the-race piece in yesterday’s LA Times tells you everything you need to know about the parlous condition of the Bush-Cheney campaign a week before the GOP confab in New York: “Bush Aims to Solidify His Base.” If Bush, like Al Gore at this stage in 2000, were struggling to shore up support from his party’s rank-and-file, this focus on the conservative base might make sense. But no, Bush is already pulling well over 90% of self-identified Republicans.
As Brownstein explains, GOPers have convinced themselves they are going to win by boosting conservative turnout. “The Bush campaign believes that there are functionally no swing voters, that campaigns are about the mobilization of your base and expanding the turnout of your base,” a “veteran GOP operative” told Ron. And this kind of talk is not a new thing for the Bushies, who have apparently been reading old BlogForAmerica posts by Joe Trippi, avatar of “screw the swing” thinking among Democrats earlier in this cycle.
There are three big problems with this strategy:
(1) Undecided voters actually do exist, according to every survey, and even if you accept the lowest possible estimate of their numbers (say, 5% of the electorate), they will be decisive in a close election. Remember the basic rule of electoral math: if you “energize” someone to turn out whose vote is certain, you pick up a maximum of one vote, and if your “mobilization” strategy isn’t pretty damn quiet, you’re going to help the other guy “energize” marginal voters as well. If you turn an undecided voter, you get two votes by winning one and denying your opponent one as well.
(2) On the whole, marginal voters are more like swing voters than base voters. They are less partisan, less ideological, harder to reach and motivate, and more cynical about electioneering than voters. And this year, marginal voters as a whole, who are younger, more moderate, more independent, and more downscale than voters, are leaning towards Kerry. A general increase in turnout, which every measurement of voter interest is presently indicating, will help Kerry, not Bush. That’s not a guess; it’s an informed conviction.
(3) Selectively motivating marginal voters is not as easy as it sounds. They are by definition relatively disengaged from political and civic life, and unlikely to respond to campaign ads or the exhortations of opinion-leaders. Targeted GOTV works best when you focus on high geographical concentrations of marginal voters likely to go your way, and then literally go door-to-door to boost overall turnout in these areas (yes, phone banks and emails are helpful, too, but there’s still no more reliable method than the ol’ “knock and drag.”) While the advent of sunbelt exurban communities has given Republicans a ripe target for intensive GOTV efforts, Democratic marginal voters are still much more concentrated, especially in the midwestern battleground states. Moreover, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that Democrats and their allies in the new 527s are significantly outgunning the GOP in GOTV preparations.
In a dead-even election, of course, every vote matters. But the odds that Bush is going to prevail by ignoring undecided voters and winning the turnout wars fall somewhere on the scale that leads from slim to none. If the President’s wizards really believe the crap they’re saying on the subject, it’s a sure sign of a campaign in deep denial, and deep trouble.
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