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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Will Condi Rice’s Testimony Stop the Bleeding?

Seems unlikely to me based on the parts of that testimony I caught on TV. And especially unlikely given the strongly negative public opinion trends that are buffeting the Bush administration.
Consider the following. After a month where Bush spent heavily on campaign ads attacking John Kerry and where the economy finally turned in a good performance on creating jobs, the president’s political position has gotten substantially worse, not better.
The lastest Pew Research Center poll, conducted April 1-4 and overlapping with last Friday’s strong jobs report, has his overall job approval rating at 43 percent–the worst rating in any public poll of his presidency–with 47 percent disapproval. The same poll has his approval rating on the economy at just 39 percent with 53 percent disapproval.
In the latest CBS News poll, his economic approval rating is even worse: 37 percent approval/56 percent disapproval (30/59, almost 2:1 disapproval, among independents). And that’s at the end of a strong economic month for the administration.
But it is on Iraq, foreign policy and, above all, the war on terror that Bush’s position has deteriorated most significantly. That I believe was the most important political development of month of March, not the much-ballyhooed Bush campaign ads and the (completely predictable) diminution in Kerry’s lead over Bush in polling trial heats.
In the Pew poll, Bush’s approval rating on Iraq is down to 40 percent with 53 percent disapproval. That’s a 35 point swing from the Iraq rating Bush received in January in the same poll (59/37).
On foreign policy, the CBS News poll has Bush at 42 percent approval/49 percent disapproval and a dismal 36/52 among independents.
But it’s on his handling of the war on terror that Bush has taken the most significant blows to his political standing. That area has been Bush’s political fortress ever since 9/11.
No longer–that fortress is crumbling. In the CBS News poll, he’s down to 58 percent approval in this area. And in two recent polls–the Pew poll and the Annenberg Election Survey–his approval rating on handling the war against terrorism is down to a distinctly underwhelming 53 percent.
Moreover, by almost 3:1 (67-23) in the CBS News poll, the public now says the Bush administration could have done more to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks (more than 3:1–68/20–among independents).
As revelations about the Bush administration’s inept handling of the terrorist threat, both before and after 9/11, continue to emerge, the public’s view of Bush’s performance in this area seems likely to deteriorate even further.
As will definitely be the case with his handling of Iraq, given the increasing violence and instability there (note that the polls discussed here were taken prior to this week’s intense street battles in multiple cities). In the CBS News poll, those saying the result of the Iraq war was not worth the loss of US life and other costs now outnumber those saying it was by 54-37 (59-32 among independents, almost 2:1). Only 36 percent believe the war has made the US safer from terrorism; only 34 percent believe the Iraq war is a major part of the war against terrorism; and just 15 percent believe the Bush administration has clearly explained how long US troops will be in Iraq.
In addition, the Pew poll shows that, by 57-32, people don’t think Bush has a clear plan to bring the Iraq situation to a successful conclusion. And the public is now close to evenly split on whether to keep troops in Iraq until a stable government is etablished (50 percent) or simply bring troops home as soon as possible (44 percent). That’s down from strong 63-32 support for keeping troops there in January.
Yup, it’ll take more than Condi Rice’s stonewalling to turn these numbers around. And clearly Bush’s deteriorating political position has already benefitted Kerry, who leads now leads by 5 points (16 points among independents ) in CBS News’ presidential trial heat.
But I am nevertheless struck by how timid Kerry’s approach seems given Bush’s increasing vulnerabilities. His economic plan is quite cautious, focusing around fiddling with tax incentives and deficit reduction (see his speech yesterday at Georgetown University). Is this really a convincing answer to the challenges posed by outsourcing and the end of the 90’s bubble economy? I don’t think so–and read these important pieces by Paul Glastris and Brad DeLong/Stephen Cohen to get a sense of how seriously vision-challenged Kerry’s current economic policies are.
As for Iraq and the war on terror, Kerry seems content to let the evolving situation drag Bush down without any help from him. That may have been a wise decision over the short run but it is not sustainable over the long run. Here’s an excerpt from today’s Adam Nagourney/Carl Hulse story in The New York Times:
Mr. Kerry described the president’s Iraq policy as “one of the greatest failures of diplomacy and failures of judgment that I have seen in all the time that I’ve been in public life.”
Still, even as he attacked Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry was notably vague in saying how he would handle the matter as president. His advisers said he had no plans to offer a policy speech about a war that aides to Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry alike said they now expected to provide a bloody backdrop for the campaign for months.
“Right now, what I would do differently is, I mean, look, I’m not the president, and I didn’t create this mess so I don’t want to acknowledge a mistake that I haven’t made,” Mr. Kerry said on Wednesday on CNN.

Seems pretty damn weak to me. I think he’s going to have to do a lot better than this if he is to reap full political advantage from Bush’s increasing vulnerability on Iraq and national security.

18 comments on “Will Condi Rice’s Testimony Stop the Bleeding?

  1. dean rindy on

    Even though I personally favor a pull-out from Iraq, I have to disagree with you on your fears that Kerry is “too weak” on his approach to the Iraq War.
    The Adam Nagourney “news analysis” in the Times was both naive and biased toward Bush because of its assumption that the current difficulties create equal problems for both men. I am a political consultant myself. Let me assure you, whatever problems Iraq causes for Kerry, those problems are magnified ten times for the President. If you conducted a private poll of the top 100 advisers in the Bush and Kerry campaigns, and they gave you honest answers, 100 percent of them would agree that the current Iraq debacle hurts Bush far more, in fact it’s an electoral disaster for Bush unless things quickly improve. I don’t know if Kerry’s caution on the subject is due to timidity or calculation, but American political history has repeatedly demonstrated that “War Presidents” don’t survive unless they actually win the war. Truman and Johnson weren’t winning in Korea and Vietnam, and they didn’t even dare to run for re-election. LBJ’s heir, Humphrey, lost to Nixon–who claimed he had a “secret plan” to end the war. Carter couldn’t get the hostages out of Iran, and he lost. If Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo had backfired like Iraq has, Al Gore would have lost the popular vote decisively, whether Bush had a “plan” or not. Voters make a very rational decision in these cases: if we’re in a bloody mess that could have been avoided, the wisest course is to throw the idiots who got us there.
    Kerry may figure the wisest course is to wait and let public opinion come to him. At some point withdrawl will become an acceptable mainstream opinion. The polls and conventional wisdom has already started moving in that direction. In fact the public, as it usually is, is ahead of the pundits.
    Here’s the good news: This is the week that George Bush lost the 2004 election!
    Dean Rindy
    Austin, Tx

  2. Scott on

    While I agree John Kerry needs to do more to lay out his vision and plan, he’s got *seven* months to do that. In fact, do you want him to lay out that plan too early only to give Bush *more* time to criticize it? I don’t. Now, if this were T minus 2 weeks ’til the election, I would be worried. The fact Kerry is so competitive with a sitting president who less than a year ago was said to be a lock on re-election says something to me.
    Also, please remember that the 2000 “cliffhanger” re-emphasized the importance of the Electoral College, which means that, correctly, Kerry is _not_ running a national campaign. He’s running a tightly organized campaign in the “battleground” states needed to roll up that magic 270 EVs.
    I’ve seen a few of the polls in those battleground states and Kerry is either ahead or tied with Bush. If Kerry wins those battleground states plus the “Blue” states, that’s all that matters.
    I understand that I live in Maryland/DC and am not in a battleground. I’m comfortably “Blue,” which means except for news in the Washington Post, I’m not going to hear from Kerry, and that’s ok. He’s at such a $$$ disadvantage, Kerry has to be careful with his resources right now and spend where it matters. I don’t care if he ignores me as long as I keep seeing him in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, etc.
    Just my thoughts…

  3. Bob H on

    I doubt it will. In fact, the Aug 6 PDB is now about to be declassified, and it is looking more and more like a smoking gun to me.

  4. frankly0 on

    In the AP poll, it’s noteworthy that Nader has the unnaturally high number of 6%. I don’t know if the poll asked voters who’d they prefer if Nader was not in consideration, but one would expect the lion’s share of that 6% to go Kerry’s way.

  5. Sargent Ripper on

    Agree with Hmmm…
    A secret plan is just the ticket. He could promise that his secret plan is only 50% of the length of Nixon’s. Cut and run in two years…

  6. Tim H. on

    The reality is that if Kerry gets elected he will have to spend 4 years cleaning up after the current dipstick. If he can convey his “vision” to the voters as “I will be competent, unlike the present fuck-up” he’ll win. Wasn’t that one of Bush’s selling points in 2000?

  7. wvmcl on

    I read a lot of bloggers aching for red meat attacks from Kerry. It would make us feel good, but would it really help him to gain the swing votes he needs? I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that Kerry is playing it pretty shrewdly. It’s still a long way to November and a lot will happen between now and then.
    Sad to say, but true, in some ways the less Kerry says the better. We’ve all seen how an ill-considered throwaway comment or gesture can do major damage to a challenging candidate. The Rethugs are itching to pounce on any slip the candidate makes.

  8. Andrew on

    Ever since winning the nomination, Kerry has been an empty suit. There’s just no there there. It was bad enough when he was off the campaign trail for the better part of two weeks. Now he’s back, but one would hardly know.
    Kerry is making himself irrelevant. For example, he was talking about the economy yesterday. Now, we all know that the economy is important. But how many of you were focused on the economy yesterday? With Condi Rice testifying, and renewed battles raging in Iraq, the economy wasn’t even competing for space.
    Kerry has been completely out of touch with national concerns and the national debate. His timing has been abysmal. (Think about his “jobs” commercial that starting airing on the day that the labor department announced the best jobs report in four years.) And even setting timing aside, he is offering nothing to capture the imaginations of the American population.
    It’s as if his campaign is caught in Al Gore’s lock box. Let’s hope he gets out and shows some leadership. Maybe he needs to start tanking in the polls before he wakes up again. That seems to be his pattern: he only fights when he feels himself going under. But hopefully the next time he wakes up, he’ll stay awake for the duration. Otherwise, he’ll have planning of time for rest and recuperation come next November.

  9. Paul C on

    I usually don’t take the cynical view of things, but I think the answer to Haggai’s questions can be summed up in one word — Halliburton. Bush was very explicit about the fact that “we” are the ones who carried the burden of the war and “we” would be the ones to get the contracts to rebuild Iraq. Of course the “we” who carried the burden were the poor soldier’s who got shot carrying out this bogus mission and the “we” who are getting the money are the war-profiteering scum cronies of Bush and Cheney. Unfortunately, I don’t think Kerry would look good pointing this out to the public — it would look like the ultimate in down in the dirt mudslinging (even if it is true). But I certainly hope that the 527s start to sing this tune loud and clear. Kerry’s plan to internationalize the effort then starts to look like the real change in direction that it is.

  10. Haggai on

    I think Kerry should be harping on the fact that for more than a year now, since before the war, he (and this is true of almost all other leading Dems as well) has been explicitly advocating many of the things that Bush and company are now incompetently stumbling towards. Mainly, the June 30 deadline–who takes over when Bremer and the CPA are out of the picture? How do we get the UN involved, and NATO, to help with security? The administration is now desperately trying to get international help, what with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi attempting to forge some sort of transition plan. So, instead of a US-only authority for the past year, why didn’t we bring in the UN immediately after Saddam fell? Why weren’t we working with them to put together a transition plan to get Iraqis in charge, every single day for the past 12 months, instead of the desperate scramble we’re seeing at this far-too-late date? It’s always sort of difficult to say “we wouldn’t be in this mess if I’d been in charge” with a whole lot of credibility, but there should be a way to point out pretty clearly, and concisely, that the preferred approach of Kerry and the Dems wouldn’t have left us so isolated, desperate, and clueless, like we clearly are now.

  11. Sara on

    Normally it is considered poison to offer a precise plan during a campaign on an issue such as this — Nixon’s “secret plan” was one Example, but one must also remember that in 1932 FDR barnstormed the country on the platform of a balanced budget — and then refused to meet with Hoover even about the banking emergency between November and March when FDR assumed office. Eisenhower was a little more suggestive, if he won, he would take a trip to Korea. Why this is — well the principle of only one President at a time. It was particularly important during the Cold War era — not to suggest much of a change of policy until one was positioned to direct that change.
    But what Kerry can do is lay down some principles that might guide his immediate policy. Broader International Consultations and agreements on goals clearly is a good beginning — but it really doesn’t reveal what “success” would be — and that too needs to be made clear. International agreements do not address the internal sources of competition for power in Iraq, and I suspect what we are seeing right now is more about that than we think. The most fierce show of Anti-Americanism wins power points.
    But I would agree that Kerry needs to seem to earn the new found support he seems to have received due to Bush’s miserable failures It is a question of seeming to win by luck or win by earning — and thus far, Kerry has yet to put forward the rally cry that earns. With virtually all the numbers falling Kerry’s way the tendency is to say don’t fool with the dynamics — but I am not sure that takes us all the way to November.
    But I am glad to read Ruy’s take on the recent polls — am getting too dependent for interpretation on his observations and analysis.

  12. Billmon on

    “Seems pretty damn weak to me. I think he’s going to have to do a lot better than this if he is to reap full political advantage from Bush’s increasing vulnerability on Iraq and national security.”
    I agree that Kerry has to do better rhetorically, but I don’t think he benefits politically from getting into a discussion of policy specifics on Iraq. He’s positioned about right — internationalize it, make up with the allies, etc. Even the riff about sending more troops is probably safe, since it ain’t gonna happen. He just needs to package it better, and drill down on the basic message point: Nothing can be done, and nothing is going to better until the current clown show is ushered off the stage.

  13. Levi on

    The Democratic talking point on foreign policy has been that we need to work with the international community instead of pursuing the unilateralist policies of the Bush administration.
    The problem of fleshing this out is tricky. I honestly think our problems (even including Iraq) would be more tractable under any new administration. We have generated so much bad will for ourselves abroad because of the ideological blinders and the total incompetence of Bush that a new president would create a feeling of near euphoria in much of the world.
    If this is true, and if Kerry acts quickly before any (nearly inevitable) disillusionment sets in, I think he can form an international coalition with genuine good will to attack the problem of terrorism and to try to salvage something from the disaster in Iraq. Having said this though, what is truly scary about Iraq is that the situation is so fluid that it’s hard to even imagine what Kerry might be facing over there if he wins in the fall. Any specific proposal that he makes now will be hopelessly outdated by the election. So it really is tricky.
    Here is one piece of advice: Kerry needs to run an optimistic campaign. He needs to argue that Americans working with the rest of the world can face every problem. My sense is that most Americans (not just liberals!) are depressed about where the country is going. Bush can’t run an optimistic campaign because it isn’t believable anymore. It isn’t Morning in America by a long shot.
    So Kerry needs to make his arguments with a smile, which may not be easy for such a dour looking guy.

  14. frankly0 on

    It may be that Kerry could put together more effective responses on the issue of his own plan to handle Iraq, and on the issues of jobs and outsourcing. Maybe he’s stalling for time so that he can think through good, up to date, detailed strategies.
    Yet the political reality seems to be that his head to head numbers are improving, doing just what he is, or isn’t, doing. It’s a little hard to argue with that kind of success. It’s at least plausible that if he intruded himself into the news cycle too much at this time with bold new ideas, he’d only step on the bad news for Bush, or, if Kerry became highly critical, even taint it as essentially driven by partisanship.
    I’m going to wait until the cycle of horrible Bush news finally runs its course, and THEN see what Kerry offers up, before getting very much on his case.

  15. Hmmm on

    I’m not sure if Kerry really should be more bold with plan specifics. After all, Nixon won in ’68 with a ‘secret plan.’

  16. aRuss on

    The essence of Democracy is the freedom to vote. Inherent in that is that our vote will be counted and “given” to the person of our choice. When there is a question about the number of votes cast for each person in the election, we can demand a recount. NONE of this is guaranteed when non verifiable touch screen voting machines are used, NO recount can be done. To remain a democracy -and be the shining beacon of freedom we want the rest of the world to follow- we beg you not to allow the use of ANY touch screen machine for voting purposes that does not give a printed record of how we voted, how the machine has ultimately recorded our vote by providing a paper ballot, so that RECOUNTS CAN BE DONE!
    I am sending the above message to the Election Assistance Commission. They are meeting in Washington -opened to the public- on May 5. They are accepting comments from the public by fax or e-mail until the close of business APRIL 9 eastern time at: bwhitener@eac.gov. Please e-mail your concerns about using touch screen voting machines that do not have a voter verified paper ballot function and does not allow the candidates the RIGHT of a recount to them TODAY!
    Non verified voting machines are being used all over the country. Please help make them ILLEGAL.
    Call/write your congressperson and senators to support HR2239 and SB1980. The Washington Capital switchboard number is 1-800-839-5276. E-mail them at ElectedNet.


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