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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Cautionary Notes Department

I’ve been arguing for quite a while that the key numbers to look at are not the horse race numbers between Kerry and Bush but rather all the indicators that show voters losing confidence in the incumbent. We’ve had those in abundance for a couple of months, including indicators that show declining voter confidence in Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism, once his seemingly impregnable electoral advantage.
But now that Kerry seems to have taken a small lead in the horse race and now that the media have finally absorbed the fundamental fact that Bush is doing poorly, not well, in comparison to previous incumbent presidents, perhaps it’s time to strike a few cautionary notes. After all, the election is still over five months away, the lead may change hands again several times, and Kerry’s position, while strong, is hardly unassailable.
A first cautionary note worth paying attention to is provided by Matthew Yglesias in an article on the The American Prospect website. As Yglesias rightly points out, the elections about which we have relevant polling data only go back to 1948, which is a mighty small dataset. Hence, just as caution was well-advised when it appeared by historical standards that Bush would win, so is caution well-advised now when it appears that, by those standards, he is likely to lose. Moreover, as Yglesias points out, if you expand the number of cases under consideration by including elections where a sitting vice president runs to succeed an incumbent president (1960, 1988, 2000) as sort of quasi-incumbent elections, the historical picture looks a little cloudier.
Personally, I still think Bush is in a great deal of trouble. But we should be cautious about relying too much on the historical record in assessing his likelihood of losing.
Another cautionary note is struck by Terence Samuel, also on the Prospect website. His article, “Chicken Littles Recant“, points out how quickly Democrats tend to go from being more depressed than they should be by political trends (oh no, Kerry’s only running even with Bush; he should be ahead by 10 points; disaster looms!!) to being excessively optimistic (Kerry’s ahead, Bush is sinking fast–Kerry’s going to win by a landslide!!)
As he points out:
This is an up moment, but it was only a few weeks ago that some influential but unnamed Democrats were wringing their hands on the front page of The New York Times about how Kerry was blowing their big opportunity to win back the White House.
Let’s try to remember this and not get similarly silly the next time the polls and news cycle go south for Kerry.
Finally, Josh Marshall cautions us not to conclude from the current good news that now is the time for Kerry to ratchet up his aggressiveness and take center stage away from the president. As he puts it:
….partisan polarization will intensify in the coming months. And that will help the president in many ways, getting some of the attention off him and on to Kerry. But a judgment about the president like the [negative] one I’ve described above, once made, can be hard to unmake. And for the moment, with so many of the president’s actions delivering abysmal dividends to the nation he’s led, that judgment is being made against the president. So, for the moment, I’m not sure having Kerry give Bush center stage is such a bad thing.
Of course, that doesn’t really tell us when Kerry should turn up the heat. But it’s a reasonable point that we should not necessarily assume that a bit of good news means that time is now.

10 comments on “Cautionary Notes Department

  1. Sara on

    Kerry ought to prepare policy speeches of equal length as Bush’s, and let the campaign demand equal coverage. It does not have to be immediate response as per Saturday Radio messages — but it ought to be roughly equal venues.
    I have been quite supportive of Kerry’s apparent tact of remaining fairly silent on many apparent matters, but in the past week I have wanted Kerry to be much more critical of the apparent origin of the “torture” policy in the memos that passed between Bush and Gonzalas, that apparently assumed you could change the law of the land by simply declaring it “Quaint” and an old paradigm. Let’s get something straight. When a President participates in negotiating a treaty (as Harry Truman did in the 1949 Geneva Accords) and then recommends them to the Senate as a Treaty — and the Senate passes the treaty, it is the law of the land — period punct. If you want to change it, you have to go to congress, etc., etc. It might help if someone started talking about Article VI of the constitution — which is where you find the Treaty is Law language. Kerry really needs to offer an analysis not only of the Abu Ghraib pictures — but of the essentially passive manner in which Bush allowed illegal assumptions to filter down the chain of command.

  2. James on

    Carpe, I agree with you (except maybe for #5 and 6). And as reignman mentioned, the upcoming speeches on Iraq and the media fawning over those speeches, and the usual negative media coverage or non-coverage of Kerry and the Democrats, will make Bush rebound in popularity. It’s still his election to lose.

  3. Carpe Diem on

    Look, Bush is gonna win, and here’s why:
    1. Diebold
    2. Florida is in the fix
    3. The media is his buddy
    4. We are no longer a democracy. That quaint notion ended
    in November 2000.
    5. Osama Been Forgotten will be found at the GOP covention in prime time and presented to Rudy The Hero Guliani as a trophy.
    6. Conan the Barbarian will be out stumping for Bush, so all the star struck morons will think they’re voting for Der Terminator.
    7. We’re a fascist country now, so hells bells, lets have more war.
    Just my opinion cuz I have no faith left in the Murican peeplet anymore.

  4. dean on

    I’m not so sure I agree with the premise that Democrats have been swinging between poles of despair and optimism. I believe that there is a certain amount of that which is simply a reaction to the way in which stories are reported. Understand that your average reporter, when he or she reports that the polls have the candidate in a dead heat, does not mention that this is a poor position for an incumbent president. Then the news changes and the polls figures change and it is reported as “President Bush’s position in the polls is weakening considerably on the heels of a report that…” Media loves scandal and shock and drama. Most of the Democrats I know are pretty level-headed. They take exactly the tone you suggest: cautious optimism.

  5. reignman on

    Agreed. Bush will get a bump from his newest speech deal on Iraq. He’ll get another once Iraq gets its soverignty. He’ll probably do something on the 4th of July. He’ll get a bump at the convention, and another on 9-11, 04. But come the debates, Bush won’t be able to stop millions of dissatisfied Americans tuning in, and listening to what Kerry has to say, or at least what SNL does.

  6. John Mcc. on

    For those who need a quantitative analysis for their comfort blankie…
    Check out this in Salon By James Galbraith…econometricists kick ass when it comes to numbers..
    Coming to our senses?
    What the president’s declining approval ratings suggest about Americans’ judgment — and the prospects for redefeating Bush.
    – – – – – – – – – – – –
    By James K. Galbraith
    May 22, 2004 | So you think the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal has broken the back of President Bush’s popularity? Well, I did too. But then I did a reality check.
    Last February I ran an experiment with the first 37 months of Bush’s approval ratings…
    Tick, tock — no matter what Bush said or did, Americans seemed to come to their senses about him at a steady rate. Except, of course, in the presence of a galvanizing foreign event or crisis.
    Americans could be coming to a deeper judgment on Bush — perhaps about his competence, or trustworthiness, or character. And we could be coming to that judgment as a whole people. It could be that we are not irrevocably divided down the middle between blues and reds. Maybe some of us just take a bit longer than others to think things through.

  7. John Mcc. on

    The optimism is warranted and it really has little to do with horserace numbers or with history.
    Especially not with history for the Bush presidency since 9-11 is fundamentally AHISTORICAl.
    This leads to the fundamental reason for optimism. The Great National Coma is over. Iraq is a disaster and will continue as such. The economy is nowhere near as strong as the stock peddling pundits would have us believe and most importantly THE NATIONAL COMA IS OVER. Bush has made enemies not only of democrats, but lazy media who think they’ve been had, Chinese, Japanes, Russians, Europeans, Arabs, the entire Muslim world…a list as long as your arm.
    The National Coma is over. Kerry must strike and strike hard. Whne I say SOON but that is the art of politics not the science…
    “Not to get personal about it, but the president’s capacity to lead has never been there In order to lead, you have to have judgment. In order to have judgment, you have to have knowledge and experience. He has none.
    The emperor has no clothes. He is SO gone” Nancy Pelosi

  8. Alan Snipes on

    I think these articles make good points. Let Bush hang himself. We need to register voters and work , work , work.
    The Kerry campaign can win big if we organize and keep the pressure on Bush. But we cannot appear to be too greedy. Save that for after the election.


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