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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

It’s Tempting to Just Run on the Economy and Health Care

Especially since they seem to go so closely intertwined in voters’ minds. In the latest Democracy Corps poll, the top three economic problems rated “very serious” by voters were rising health care costs (53 percent), employers cutting back contributions for employees’ health insurance and pensions (38 percent) and job losses to China and India (37 percent).
And in another question asking voters which two of a list of seven economic problems qualified as “major long-term” problems, the top two were “jobs being outsourced overseas” (selected by 43 percent of voters) and “health care costs rising every year” (selected by 35 percent).
But that would be wrong. Sure these two issues are both (a) highly salient and (b) areas of clear Democratic advantage. Beating Bush, however, will require a more wide-ranging approach that takes a few more risks.
Start with Iraq and the national security issue. As I mentioned the other day, Bush currently leads Kerry on who could handle the situation in Iraq better (53-37). And he leads Kerry by even more on handling terrorism and homeland security (56-35). It’s probably not stretching things too much to say that if Kerry can cut these margins in half, he’ll win the election.
The raw material for cutting those margins is certainly there. The Democracy Corps poll shows about half the public saying Bush doesn’t have good plans for Iraq, that he has a go-it-alone policy that creates a lot of uncertainty in the world, that America’s security depends on building strong ties with other nations, that Bush misled the country about reasons about reasons to go to war in Iraq and that the war in Iraq was not worth the cost of US lives and dollars. And this survey was conducted before this weeks intense wave of bad publicity for the administration from the testimony and public statements of Richard Clarke.
A great time to push on the Iraq mess and the president’s credibility, right? But, as Matthew Yglesias reports on Tapped today:
Last night I saw Terry McAuliffe speaking to a Democratic Party MeetUp at Lucky Bar here in Washington. He was, as one would expect, highly critical of George W. Bush’s leadership. He managed, however, not to mention the war on terror at all in the course of his presentation, focusing instead on jobs, health care, and education. This was a bad strategy when it was first unveiled for the 2002 midterms; it’s been a bad strategy ever since, and it’s an absolutely awful strategy for this week.
The kind of approach exemplified by McAuliffe’s talk has got to go. But let me commend him for at least mentioning education. That issue’s part of what I call the “E3” issue set (education, the environment and energy) that needs to get a more prominent role in the campaign.
Take education. Bush is hugely vulnerable on this issue because of the many problems with the No Child Left Behind Act and the general sense that education is getting shortchanged in the current fiscal environment. And this is an important issue to voters (if not quite as important as the economy and health care).
But in the recent Newsweek poll, Kerry only has a 3 point lead over Bush on who can best handle the issue. That should be larger.
As for the environment and energy, these are issues with lower salience, but are also issues where Bush is generally perceived as doing a lousy job. Bush’s terrible ratings on the environment have been documented in poll after poll and now Gallup has released some data showing the public’s view of his performance on the energy issue is also bleak.
According to these data, Bush’s rating on energy was highest right after he was elected, in March, 2001, when 58 percent said he was doing a good job on this issue. From then on, it declined steadily every time Gallup took a reading, falling to 54 percent in April of that year, then to 46 percent in March, 2002 (one area where his post-9/11 approval spike apparently never kicked in), then to 39 percent in March, 2003 and finally to 34 percent this month.
So there’s a great deal of opportunity on the E3 issues, if Democrats care to take it. And a strong program in these areas–building a 21st century P-14 school system (preschool through 2 years of college), energy independence and safeguarding the environment–would go a long way toward giving Kerry’s domestic approach the optimistic, forward-looking character it needs. That would help reach the swing voters Kerry needs to win, as well as mobilize the young voters that are already moving in his direction (see yesterday’s post).

8 comments on “It’s Tempting to Just Run on the Economy and Health Care

  1. Ryan on

    Kerry needs a “missile gap” issue. I think fusing national security and energy issues could define the Republican deficiencies. Obsession with Iraq (no proven Al Qaeda links) removes focus from Saudi Arabia (home of 15 of 19 Sept. 11 hijackers).
    National Security: In NYT March 31 article, David Cay Johnston reports, “The Bush administration has scuttled a plan to increase by 50 percent the number of criminal financial investigators working to disrupt the finances of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations to save $12 million, a Congressional hearing was told on Tuesday.” $12 million is a pittance. No one ever died of wounds from a financial investigation.
    Energy: Stress CAFE standards. Reduces aggregate demand, and thus gas prices. Reduces carbon emissions, and thus global warming. Reduces volatility of foreign oil markets.
    National Security+Energy: Go after Cheney’s Energy Task Force relentlessly. Recent New Yorker article on Cheney suggests foreign oil sources considered. How significant was Iraq? Why was energy task force convened regularly while terrorism task force never met? If Scalia votes to keep task force info secret, then his integrity becomes an issue (due to duck hunting with Cheney while Cheney’s case pending) and points to larger problems of right-wing judges.

  2. shari on

    Re: education, Kerry hasn’t really challenged NCLB problems except superficially during the primaries. He hasn’t distinguished himself as extremely different than Bush on NCLB unlike Dean. The other thing is that I don’t think most people, other than those on school boards, teachers, and others directly involved in education, know that much about NCLB problems.
    As for Bush, my take is that the DOE and friends are busy trying to take care of their base with small concessions/changes to NCLB.
    Given these things, it doesn’t surprise me that regarding education, there isn’t much of a difference between the two groups.

  3. Oberon on

    Sorry to sound like a right-winger on this one, but could a Dem like Kerry ever put “abolish the federal Dept of Education” on his platform?
    Seriously, the federal government should just give block grants to the states and let the states 100% handle education.
    Politically, I think it would be a great way to outflank Bush. Policy-wise, I believe it’s the right thing to do.

  4. laura on

    It’s that mentallity which could lose this election for us. I’m making my donations to move on, from now on, not to Kerry. I don’t want my hard-earned bucks wasted. Move-on makes more effective ads. by the way they are trying to raise 300000 to put some ads on the air that say Bush ignored warnings about 911.
    The war is a major issue. Democrats need to be assertive and vocal.

  5. Paul C on

    I think Kerry has the opportunity for a simple and devastating message with regard to Iraq. “We need to turn the rebuilding of Iraq over to the international community, and have them share the burden of troops and money. George Bush will not do this, because he has made too many personal enemies in the international community and his friends are making too much money as war profiteers.”

  6. Sara on

    I am not in favor of limiting the range of issues. You have to provide compelling reasons for more people to actually plan to vote — register, get ready, and by thoes means, somewhat increase the size of the actual electorate. Dem’s do well when the turn-out is good (relatively speaking) and they do much less well when it is constricted. To get a large Kerry turnout (key to winning) people need to know the various issues important to them are being addressed by the campaign. This will require a campaign that agressively persues voters on all the fronts they care about. This isn’t 1996 when you can run on Junior High School Uniforms.


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