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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is Bush Getting Perhaps Just a Trifle Defensive?

His performance in his Meet the Press interview certainly seemed that way. Based on the latest Newsweek poll , that defensiveness is easy to understand. His approval rating in the poll is down to 48 percent with 45 percent disapproval, the worst rating of his presidency.
In addition, for the third straight time in this poll, more say they don’t want to see him re-elected (50 percent) than do (45 percent). Moreover, he’s on the wrong end of an intensity gap: 45 percent strongly don’t feel he should be re-elected, compared to 37 percent who strongly feel he should.
Also for the third straight time, John Kerry leads Bush in a head-to-head matchup, this time by 5 points (50 percent to 45 percent), his biggest lead yet.
DR’s not sure Democrats are psychologically prepared to deal with all this clear evidence of Bush’s vulnerabilities and the very real possibility that he could be beaten in November. In some ways, it’s easier to fall back on the gloomy assumption that Rove and the rest of the GOP machine will find some dirty, but clever, way to deliver the election for Bush, no matter how unpopular he starts to get.
Time to ditch this ridiculous outlook. Rove is certainly a good operative and the GOP machine is well-organized and funded. But fundamentally, they have to play with the political hands they’re dealt. For awhile those hands were amazingly good, which helped the Rove machine look almost magical in its effectiveness. But now their hands are getting worse which will make the Rove machine look progressively less effective and way short of magical.
In other words, hard work, smart politics and a willingness to play hardball may be all Democrats need to beat these guys. No supernatural intervention, contrary to the beliefs of some, will be required.

27 comments on “Is Bush Getting Perhaps Just a Trifle Defensive?

  1. rt on

    Yes, the Diebold concern seemed to me a very serious one a month or so ago. I don’t know if anything has changed that would reassure Americans that the votes will be counted correctly in November and that there will be a paper trail to verify. I’m not a conspiracy kind of guy. I agree this is a real concern.
    Only half jokingly I emailed Nancy Pelosi awhile back suggesting the minority on the appropriate House and Senate Subcommittees convene an oversight hearing on the Diebold matter in Ohio. The Republicans and most definitely the media would be invited.
    Gotta make a splash about it. No reply so far. Time to get on the DNC about this? Doesn’t do us any good to win the support of a majority of voters if the election results don’t accurately reflect that.

  2. Joanne on

    It’s the Diebold voting machines that have me worried. It’s pretty clear that with a fair and square vote George W. Bush would be relieved of office in November. But Democrats have got to take on this issue and bring it to greater public awareness.
    Cheating in vote-counting is not acceptable business as usual in this country and any American who does NOT get angry about it is derelict in patriotic duty. It’s time to stop cheating in our elections byKarl Rove and the Bushits, the RNC, and all their little “elves”.

  3. Laura on

    Happy birthday, Upper Left,
    I’m a Clarkie from Washington, an endangered species. I’m not usually an obsessive about politics but, like everone else, I’m anxious about the outcome of this election. There are a lot of Kerry supporters on this blog which is fine except they tend to interpet criticism of their guy as negativity about the Democratic chances in general. I’m more optimistic than ever about our chances in general, I’m just not too sanguine about Kerry in particular and I think he’s getting the nomination for the wrong reasons,(default, inertia, the tendency of a body in motion in a vaccum to stay in motion). The fact that the vaccum is cynically and deliberately created by conservative-controlled media also worries me.
    Kerry is doing the right thing right now. he is reframing patriotism in terms of combat service which is a useful and effective ploy this election. But of course he stole that from Clark who has been reframing patriotism in a more inclusive way in every speech since October. Clark’s frame includes dissenters.
    But the fact that Kerry is borrowing his issues from Dean and Clark should be an alarmbell. How likely is it that a man who waffles on such overwhelmingly important issues win an election by being trusted? Yes I know he is trusted right now but that’s a shallow reaction based mostly on name recognition.
    Oh well I should stop obsessing and go to something constructive…. later, Laura

  4. Upper left on

    Excellent post. I am in the middle of reading Moral Politics right now. It is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. The writing is pretty dense and dry but the content is truly fascinating.
    I don’t have time for a long post now (it is my birthday, and I am heading up to beautiful Mt Hood to go snowboarding), but will try to post a longer piece later. I do think Edwards would be our strongest candidate. By the way, Laura, what part of the country are you located in? Greetings to all from Oregon.

  5. Brian Y on

    I completely agree. While, as some may have noticed in earlier posts, I am by nature a pessimist, the danger of DRE machines is very real to our democracy. According to a recent Salon article, such voting machines are installed in over 20% of counties nationwide. That may not seem like much, but let’s assume such machines would give Bush 80% of the vote (100% might stand out). That means the Democractic candidate would have to win about 59% of the remaining vote. And I don’t think anyone can expect that to happen.
    If you think this is all conspiracy talk and doomesday scenarios, check out the following links:

  6. DisplacedHoser on

    Diebold voting machines have been installed in too many states for the Democrats to win. Look at this:
    And at the results from the Georgia Senate election, where somehow Max Cleland’s 10-point lead mysteriously dissipated in a state with Diebold voting machines.
    The disenfranchisement of blacks in Florida 2000, and the recent Texas redistricting, should demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Republican establishment is entirely willing to sabotage democracy when it suits their purposes. The Diebold voting machines (produced by a corporation run by a man who promised, in writing, to help deliver Ohio to the Republicans) prove that they are able to do so.
    They want to do it. They can do it. This means they will do it. There will be no emerging Democratic majority, not now, not ever, unless something is done about the voting machines. There are only two hitches I can see to the Republican plan. One is if the actual votes are a Democratic landslide (like 20% or more). In less technologically sophisticated banana republics, it’s very difficult to fake a win under such circumstances, and I think the same may be true here. But this seems unlikely, to say the least, given the strength of the Bush propaganda machine. Still, the possibility is there, which may be the reason Bush looks worried now (or maybe he’s just doing it to keep up appearances).
    The other is to get HR 2239 passed before the election. How likely this is, I don’t know. But it seems like the world’s best hope. (I don’t just say the country’s. The US is the de facto ruler of the planet.)

  7. laura on

    Brian, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to provoke that kind of response. I just thought what the profesor said was interesting and made some mystifying voter behavior more understandable.

  8. Laura on

    Hi everybody, I’ve been listening to NPR. They just aired an interview with a professor (can’t remember his name) and author of the book Moral Politics. He was explaing how conservatives n effectively use language to control and manipulate the political dialog. For example conservatives have effectively framed the Iraq invasion as a necessary response to 911 when of course there is no actual connection. Another example is the framing of tax cuts as tax relief as if taxes were inherently burdensome and not the legimate membership dues we all must pay to support the infrastucture. Calling the anti-abortion position “right to life” is a classic example of framing an idea in a way that controls the subsequent debate.
    Also he pointed out that conservatives don’t consult opinion polls to decide what the issues are. They provide real leadership ( of a negative kind) by determining the issues and the way the issues will be framed and then repeating their framed issues over and over until it becomes part of everyone’s vocabulary and perception of reality. Even Democrats get sucked in and begin discussing issues within the conservative frames.
    His last point was especially interesting. He said that Democrats think people vote their self interest. Democrats think that all they have to do is point out how Republicans are violating people’s interests and people wil vote for Democrats. The professor says that people vote thier identities. They vote for the candidate that seems to be like them. They trust the candidate that seems to be like them. That’s why hey’ll vote for people who screw them over.
    You can see this tendency at work in the Democratic primary right now as our fellow Democratic primary participants vote for the candidate that most resembles themselves without stopping to think about how that candidate will appear to all the people who are not at the
    primary. Or without being able to accurately imagine how the candidate will appear to the people not there.
    So I tried an experiment on my high school students. They watched on of the early Democratic debates in their history class. I asked them what they thought and here’s a summary of their responses: Dean was “that crazy guy”, Kerry was “funny-looking”, Clark seemed intelligent but they couldn’t understand what he was saying. They liked Edwards.
    They liked Edwards because they could understand him. He speaks in simple direct emotion laden sound bites. Also he appears sincere.
    I personally can’t stand Edwards because he speaks in simple direct emotion laden sound bites and seems insincere but I grew up on books, not TV. Another fact Democrats need to understand about their fellow citizens is that many people are not capable of tracking auditory information,. They respond to visual images, and catch phrases. That’s how Reagan “won” his debates with nothing but his smug smile and “There you go again” mantra.
    So how do we win this thing? According to this professor we need to determine the issues, set the frames for the issues and provide leadership on the issues from a person who has a trust-inducing manner and the ability to communicate to people who get their view of reality from the six o’clock news.
    So how do our candidates measure up to this criteria? Do I have to become an Edwards supporter?

  9. Donald from Hawaii on

    Democrats cannot afford to have this forthcoming presidential campaign reduced to a summary of their own policy differentials with the incumbent administration. The central issue here, upon which Election ’04 will turn, is George W. Bush himself. Democrats need to publicly demolish his credibility before — and thus his rapport with — the American people. If they do that effectively, everything else will fall into place.

  10. the propagandist on

    just remember – the same media machine that is feeding on the awol and kay commentary will be blitzed by a 13 million dollar ad misinformation campaign aimed right at – older voters. these numbers could flip. and before we get really excited about a polarized electorate – it was a polarized electorate in 2000 too.
    the numbers are volatile, and while encouraging, are still national matchups. what would be really nice is a battleground state series of research that shows where we are…

  11. Sara on

    Best defense against an “October Surprise” is to predict it and expect it. Then it would just be an October event, not exactly a surprise. In fact, I suspect the Bush Campaign Schedule already is blocked out for a quick trip (with reporters) to Afghanistan, so that Bush can slap on the handcuffs and take the handover. If everyone more or less expects it, it will cease to be the prime consideration in how they plan to vote. Of course we expect OUR TROOPS and OUR INTELLIGENCE SERVICES to find bin Laden & co.
    Kerry (I assume he’s our candidate) needs to keep control of the agenda as long as possible — particularly during August after the convention, and when most people vacation and this year watch the Olympics. What I fear is that we’ll be in good shape after the convention, and then the attention will shift to the games, and then to the Bush Production, and we will have lost control. Many independent voters don’t pay much attention or decide till after Labor Day, or into October — and those are the votes we are after.

  12. Mara on

    I think Upper Left has good themes, but Kerry’s been framing the debate as to who is extremist and who is mainstream. I think Bush is definitely vulnerable on being portrayed as an extremist. First, because it’s true, second, because it plays very well to the middle, and the bases are secure, anyway. Kerry’s also given a clear indication that everything is going to be on the table, and they’re going to hit hard. He’s going to claim “patriotism”, and “fiscal responsibility” as Democratic territory, and give voice to the anger many non-Repubs feel at the insinuation that somehow Republicans are the “real Americans” and that Dems don’t measure up in the patriotism department.

  13. rt on

    This is a reply to upper left.
    As I’ve said I’d like to see the campaign go on well into next month. I believe that would help us on balance. However, I don’t see the Edwards, Clark or Dean camps bowing out to give one of their rivals a shot at a one on one with Kerry. They each see themselves as the campaign that should get that chance.
    Regarding your themes, quibbles with the elaborations aside, I like them, especially the second one. The first one seems more a defensive strategy we’ll need than a positive message.
    The slight elaboration of the Edwards theme is the one I like best: we need to move from two Americas to one America that is a land of opportunity for all Americans. (some variant of that).
    I also think some version of that theme helps position us for the response to the gay marriage issue the Republicans will try to destroy us with. The idea is that we need to be about lifting one another up as a people, not tearing one another down. That it’s going to take all Americans working together to help us take advantage of the opportunities and meet the challenges of today. That we believe in one America that is that land of opportunity and beacon of freedom and hope around the world that we have been–and will once again be!
    We have to approach this as an eminently winnable election, and try to substitute as the focal question not whether we can win but how we can win. Nose to the grindstone, avoid the highs and lows (not to “worry”, we’ll have plenty of the latter soon enough), each do our parts to help make it a disciplined and unified effort, and just keep doing everything we can to win it, believing that we can. The chips we can’t affect will fall where they will.
    I’m ready to “leave it all on the floor” trying to get it done and I don’t hear anyone writing here saying anything in conflict with that.

  14. demtom on

    No matter what polls show, there are always Democrats predicting ultimate doom for their candidates (Republicans, conversely, believe they’re going to win regardless of how bleak things look — three days before election ’92, Fred Barnes was predicting a Truman comeback for Bush). I guess this is by now built into the DNA of the parties. It reminds me of line I once heard in a play: A woman, reflecting wryly on the tendency of Jewish males to date blonde WASPs, said “The only people who still believe in Aryan superiority are Jewish men”. At this point, the people who most believe in GOP dominance are committed Democrats. It’s going to take a truly smashing Dem victory to finally convince them they’re on the correct track.
    I maintain some doubt about Kerry because, unlike most, I don’t think focusing on pure “electability” is the surest route to victory, particularly against an incumbent. The candidates who’ve unseated incumbents since the 20s — Roosevelt, Carter, Reagan, Clinton — were actually considered risky by the party establishments. Dole, Ford and Mondale, by contrast, were pushed by the insiders, and even the ones that lost respectably still lost.
    But that fight’s over, and we all ought to take satisfaction in not only Bush’s falling approvals (which are of far more significance than any head-to-head matchups), but in his response, which is eerily Poppy-like. All throughout 1992, the White House kept promising the gestalt would change after this speech or that new proposal; I’m hearing the same today. They don’t seem to grasp that an incumbent is a prisoner of his record. If the jobs don’t start materializing, if soldiers keep dying daily in Iraq, no speech or TV appearance — even a great one — will improve Bush’s standing one iota.

  15. frankly0 on

    I’ve always thought that Rove has been quite a bit overrated as an operative.
    Too many Democrats seem to think of him as a Machiavellian genius. Machiavellian yes, genius no. What he has done is to apply obvious recipes in obvious ways. Mostly, these have been very successful, because public sentiment has been manipulable along easily predictable lines. Rove is a little like a hack sitcom writer who keeps appylying the same formulas over and over, with no sense that there might come a time when they no longer work.
    In fact, Rove’s moves are almost always transparently obvious. So he’s going to go after Kerry as a “Massachusetts liberal”. I mean, who didn’t see THAT one coming from a mile away?
    But here’s what Rove almost certainly did NOT foresee: that Kerry would immediately counterattack with the highly plausible and resonant assertion that it is BUSH who is extreme, and far out of the mainstream of American politics, turning Rove’s extremism argument on its head. Why is it clear that Rove didn’t see this coming? Because he had Bush go on Meet the Press and center his campaign on the notion that he, Bush, was a leader who makes decisions which he never backs down on, no matter how many people he may antagonize. Rove clearly thinks this makes Bush seem like a strong leader. But it will be VERY easy for Kerry to spin that as the rigidity of a radical ideologue, who will NEVER change his mind, or even listen to opposing points of view — someone who can never admit he is wrong.
    The difference between a hack and a real talent is that a hack can only repeat what he has done in the past, and can’t adjust to new realities. My expectation is that the limitations of Rove and friends are going to become obvious to all as this campaign season unfolds.
    An interesting article on the flaw in Bush/Rove’s strategy can be found in the LA Times (by Ron Brownstein).

  16. Eureka on

    I have yet to see anyone take Mr. Bush to task for the TIMING of the war. Maybe we’ve forgotten that when we decided to march into Iraq there were UN inspectors on the ground, going to where Western intelligence services were telling to go to look for WMD’s. After a few weeks they had found nothing, but they needed a few more weeks to make their search more definitive. However, we were supposedly under too much of an urgent threat to allow the UN inspections to continue.
    So it’s not a question of whether Saddam was a bad guy or even whether he had WMD’s. Instead the claim that made us go to war when we did was that the WMD’s were poised to attack us at anytime, even while the inspectors were on the ground. Someone (hopefully Democrats) needs to be asking Bush what the rush was, why he couldn’t let the inspectors finish the job a year ago.

  17. Upper left on

    Some hopefully, non-random thoughts.
    About the Dem primary:
    It looks increasingly clear that the window of opportunity to slow down Kerry is rapidly closing. As long as the anti-Kerry vote is split three ways between Dean, Clark, and Edwards, I think Kerry while win a clear plurality. IMO, the party would be better served if Clark and Dean would bow out and give Edwards a chance to try to make this a two-man race. It doesn’t look like it will happen.
    Themes against Bush:
    THEME #1: “Accountability and Responsibility”
    Dean in particular, and the Dems in general, have been accused of being “angry” for criticizing Bush. This label would be less likely to stick if every time a Dem launched into an attack against Bush they began with the following statement,
    “This campaign is not about anger, although many in our party feel angry, this campaign is about holding the President and the Republican Congress responsible for their actions. Elections are about accountability. The President and the Congress must be held to account for what they have done in the name of the American people. They have been fiscally irresponsibile, turning trillion dollar surpluses into trillion dollar deficits that we will be paying off for generations. They have neglected our responsibility to act as stewards of the environment, weakening protections to safegaurd our water and our air and ignoring the growing threat of catastrophic climate change. They have embarked on an reckless, impulsive foriegn policy that has damaged our moral standing in the world community, emptied our treasury, and may actually undermine our long term security.”
    By stressing “accountability and responsibility” and by carefully appropriating some of the moral language that is generally monopolized by Republicans, Dems can build a powerful critique of the Republican without sounding angry. We need to sound like the grown-ups. We need to label the Republicans as irresponsible; irresponsible with our money, our troops, and our planet.
    THEME #2: “Dems the party for fulfillment of American values and American dreams.”
    We need an authentic non-jingoistic way to take back patriotism from the right-wing. Just waving the flag, without talking about what it stands for is cheap and inauthentic. Especially post 9/11, Americans feel threatened and they are very responsive to appeals to patriotism. As Dems we need to talk about the values on which the country was founded and the long struggle to make the country live up to those ideals. By talking about the struggle to end slavery, to give women the vote, to give working people basic rights, and to grant civil rights, we can create a framework for discussing a whole host of current issues without sounding like cartoon liberals obsessed with political correctness. I believe this is the framework for proposing an “equal opportunity society” as Ruy and others have suggested. It is the context for talking about education, and the struggle to extend health care coverage.
    The bottom line is simple: if we are viewed as the party of high taxes and special interests, we loose. If we are viewed as the party fighting to fulfill American values and to give every American an equal opportunity to pursue the American dream, we win.
    This is a sort of sunny, patriotic populism that blends a powerful attack on Bush with a positive agenda. It embraces populism while avoiding the “us against them” of Gore’s “people vs. the powerful.” I think the power of populism has been obvious throughout the primaries. We are living in an age of “the new robber barons,” now is the time for a powerful, new, populist backlash.
    What do others think of these suggested themes?

  18. Peter on

    The hipster attitude is what concerns me the most. Far too many bloggers and columnists believe that because they hate Bush, they see the evil of his policies, that this means everyone else does too. Already I am hearing about campaigns on every level which will run on anti-Bush rhetoric.
    This man is loved, respected and adored by millions of Americans. When we forget that, when we forget the brutal, agonizing road we have ahead of us, the hundreds of millions which will be used to massacre the Democrats and their message, we let Bush and Rove win.

  19. Steve Cohen on

    You know, there were times yesterday when W looked like his Dad being out of control.
    Ruy: more harping on the anti-pessimism theme is definitely in order. Hear hear.
    Mary: I don’t think Ruy’s saying it’s a done deal. He’s gently prodding those who think a Bush victory is a done deal. It’s going to be a nasty fight. Sure. But we can win this fight. Will we? Nobody can answer that.

  20. Brian on

    Rove has not yet turned any serious guns on Kerry, nor has the media. Bush looks bad right now, but how bad will Kerry look after they get done brutalizing him? We are going to end up coronating Kerry without seeing if he can take a beating.
    That and the fact that Bush will pull an Osama out of his hat some time before election day tell me that it is far too early to predict his demise.

  21. Wagster on

    Ruy is right. We can win. This election is too important for us to be paralyzed by negativity.
    Donate money. Volunteer. Talk about politics. Vote.

  22. aleand on

    Key point: “A wilingness to play hardball”.
    Yup. Really hard hardball. Starting yesterday.
    BTW, Laura and the twins? They are game.

  23. Mary on

    As one who badly wants to get rid of Bush, I’m not ready to say this is a done deal. I think that they won’t be above having Bush/Rove pull out an October surprise – as in pulling out a Osama bin Laden, or by using the touch screen voting machines (DREs) to mess up the vote, or to just use their money to drive up the negatives of any Democratic candidate so much as to suppress turnout by pure disgust. I think we need to think like and act like we are way behind the curve and to play catchup at every turn. Otherwise, I think they will find a way to elect Bush. And I don’t think the world can afford this.

  24. BrilliantIdiot on

    Yes, defensive, and exasperated – just a little. Reminds me a lot of the other guy named Bush in 1992. Elder Bush really lost it in the closing weeks, especially when he called Al Gore “Ozone Man.”
    Not a good tone for Bush, or any candidate. He’s worried. And the more the public sees him worried and defensive, stumbling, the worse off he is. It’s a catch-22 because he has to campaign, and he and his team have tried to shield him from the media for 4 years. He’ll just stick to appearances in front of partisan crowds, but it will look very canned.


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