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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Kerry and Iraq

A front-page article in The Washington Post today detailed Democrats’ concerns that:
[Kerry] has not crisply articulated what a Kerry presidency would stand for beyond undoing much of the Bush agenda.
So far, these concerns have not slowed Kerry. But if Kerry cannot change this perception coming out of next month’s Democratic convention in Boston, it could prove much harder for the party to maximize turnout, win over Ralph Nader voters and keep independents from swinging to Bush, they say.

I agree with Noam Scheiber that the real problem here for Kerry is less maximizing turnout/exciting the base than it is keeping swing voters on Kerry’s side. But, as Scheiber acknowledges, the fact that “Kerry hasn’t yet stumbled onto a compelling, affirmative pitch” could eventually be a real problem with these voters.
A compelling, affirmative pitch for Kerry is needed on both domestic and international issues, but that need is perhaps clearest on the international side, particularly on Iraq. Consider these data from the recent Los Angeles Times (LAT) poll.
According to the LAT poll, Bush’s approval rating on Iraq is just 44 percent, with 55 percent disapproval. By 53-43, the public now believes the situation in Iraq was not worth going to war over. And by 61-35, they believe the US is getting bogged down in Iraq, rather than making good progress. Finally, just 35 percent believe Bush has offered a clear plan on how he would handle the Iraq situation, compared to 44 percent who believe he has not.
Pretty negative, huh? Trouble is, just 15 percent think Kerry has offered a clear plan on the Iraq situation, compared to 34 percent who believe he has not and 43 percent who say they haven’t yet heard enough from Kerry to form an opinion. In addition, 55 percent say they generally know not too much or nothing at all about Kerry’s proposals on foreign affairs. These are not encouraging figures.
Moreover, one of the key components of Kerry’s Iraq plan, such as it is, meets with a tepid response. Just 46 percent say they agree with Kerry’s assessment that “President Bush has lost credibility around the world and that only a new president can rally the support of U.S. allies to help stabilize Iraq”, compared to 47 percent who disagree.
In an intriguing manifestation of this possible problem for Kerry, a recent Time magazine poll of Catholics, a swingish constituency, found Kerry ahead among these voters by 49-38 on who has a plan for the economy, but behind Bush by a point (44-45) on who has a plan for Iraq and trailing by 12 points (38-50) on who has a plan for fighting terrorism.
So Kerry has some work to do to convince voters, especially swing voters, he has an affirmative, compelling plan for bringing the Iraq war to a successful conclusion–in other words, that he has a plausible and responsible exit strategy for the US. While he’s probably right that just announcing an exit date won’t work, either as policy or politically (by 73-24, the public, according to the LAT poll, opposes simply setting “a deadline for the withdrawal of all American troops in Iraq”), that doesn’t mean what he’s put on the table so far is an adequate plan–especially in terms of impressing swing voters. Whether it’s sooner or later–preferably sooner–he’s eventually got to confront that problem.

33 comments on “Kerry and Iraq

  1. anonymous on

    Kerry could pull a Richard Nixon and get the support of much of the undecided voters by promising to get our troops out of the war by a certain date. This would truly set him apart from Bush.

  2. Maxcat on

    I don’t think it’s just me but I seem to hear the Republicans (especially bush) saying the kind of things that get people to think they care and then doing just the opposite. More people just need tp pay attention.

  3. Mara on

    I believe Kerry can speak powerfully to the uninsured among us. A recent survey in California, where I live, found that more than 80% of the uninsured are working full time. They don’t have jobs that carry health insurance and they don’t make enough money to pay for it themselves. Isn’t it the Republicans who talk about family values? Isn’t health insurance for children and working parents a family issue? Kerry needs to speak up about this. We consider ourselves leaders of the world, but when it comes to the health of our citizens we lag far behind not only in access to health services, but in mortality rates, to most industrialized countries.

  4. bakho on

    You are on to something with the health care jobs connection. If you have a good job, your company will pay for your health care. If you don’t have a job you lose health care. Most people are not looking for a government handout to get health care. Most people are looking for a good job to give them health care.
    The rhetoric of the right wing and our national mythology has convinced the public that success in business or a career equals success. Part of that success is a job with health care. The rhetoric of the right wing disparages those same people from accepting government benefits and labels them as failures, welfare queens, spongers, mouchers, etc. Of course the same right wingers are only too happy to line their own pockets with corporate welfare for Halliburton. Coroporate welfare- good. Individual welfare- bad. This is why the jobs issue is a huge factor in elections.

  5. Maxcat on

    What was voter turn out in the last presidential election? 50% – 52%???? And what % of Americans that are elegible to vote register and do vote, 50%- 60%? So best case scenario 52% of the 60% who vote, that’s 31% of all elegible voters that actually elect our president. To win a candidate only needs approximately 16% (of all elegible voters) to vote for him or her, (my #’s may not be right on the money but they are close enough to make this point).
    No need to waste your time worrying about voting blocks that don’t exist (like the uninsured). We need to get more reall people involved and up off their duffs. We as a country can not suceed when we allow a minority like the republicans to dictate our agenda.
    Bush is only the president because we allowed it. We will remove him this Novenber. Democrats will not stay home or vote for Nader this time. Energize all your friends. Ignore the republican mantras.
    We should use our own mantra.
    We were lied to as a country.
    Our soldiers have died because of those lies.
    Mr. Bush, “YOUR FIRED”.

  6. Mimiru on

    Why no voting bloc? Because they’re poor. They have no way to unite and make their voices heard in concert.
    Until then, almost no one gives a shit about them.
    As Kevin Drum said, it won’t be the 40 million uninsured that force us into universal health care, it will be the middle class as they watch their health care benefits frittered away as costs go through the roof.

  7. mara on

    Another issue that’s not often addressed: the 45 million Americans that don’t have health insurance. I don’t understand, actually, why they haven’t emerged as a voting bloc. My guess is that it’s a shifting number – people lose a job and health insurance, and then find a job, then get laid off, so it’s a number made up of different people at different times.
    There’s not much good news out there for Bush.

  8. wvmcl on

    (In honor of the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s Bloomsday, June 16, 2004)

  9. bakho on

    The swing voters especially vote the pocket book. Clinton won in 96 and Reagan won in 84 because the jobs pictures had turned around. Bush is still in negative territory in jobs. Many of the midwestern “battleground states” have worse unemployment than the rest of the country. Bush has already lost MI and jobs will probably cost him OH, WV and PA.
    Yes voters are concerned about Iraq, but more from the POV of bringing our boys home. It does not matter how much chaos is happening in Iraq. If it does not involve our troops, it will not be on the evening news.
    The real issue is still Jobs. 17% unemployment among teenagers? How many parents would rather have their teens working than sleeping in late, staying out all night and raising hell? How many college students are looking at meager prospects for paying bills? How many HS grads are living at home and getting on the folks nerves? These are not the issues the politicians address but they are the ones of most concern to Americans. If Kerry can explain why more jobs will be created if he is president, Kerry will win. The clock has about run out. Bush is stuck claiming that there really are jobs, making excuses about why there are fewer jobs and promising to do better over the next 4 years. Bush had his chance to create a true jobs program but failed to do so. He deserves to lose.

  10. S Robinson on

    Reagan (1st term) ran on a plan to cut taxes. Clinton ran (1st term) on plan to reform health care. To some extent, GWB ran on a platform of education and Social Security reform.
    I’m not sure if your argument is valid; I think Americans don’t mind the plan if they agree with the stance on the issue. Voters wanted lower taxes and they elected Reagan. They wanted health care reform and they elected Clinton. They may not have agreed with the plan in its full details (particularly in Clinton’s case), but their stance on the issues helped them get elected.
    That said, I agree that a plan can also cost a candidate an election. But again, I think it is because the candidate has taken the wrong (or unpopular) stance on the issue.

  11. AS on

    One more thing …
    Can anyone come up with a presidential candidate who won because of his “plan” to deal with anything? Seriously. I can think of several who LOST in part because of their plan (Mondale’s declaration on taxes, the single issue anti-Vietnam campaigns of ’68 and ’72). But none who have won.
    Fact is, I think, many Americans are vaguely suspicious of anyone who proposes to ride into DC with a detailed “plan.” They’d rather vote for someone they perceive as a good man with general principles with which they agree.

  12. AS on

    I rather like Bob’s comments above.
    In repeating and headlining this notion that Kerry lacks an “affirmative, compelling plan,” we merely take RNC talking points, internalize them, and spit them back in our own language.
    The “he has no plan” attack is a classic, “When did you stop beating your wife?”-type strategem. No matter what the target says in response, he loses, so the best response is to ignore it. If he argues with the assessment without offering anything new, he just draws attention to it and invites the average oblivious voter to form that exact impression. If he puts forward a bunch of proposals in response, he just offers a whole lot bigger target for his opponents to shoot at. It’s a fool’s choice.
    The fact is, most of the voters (I’ll bet) who really care that Kerry’s policies aren’t dynamic or attractive are either a) Liberals like us who like government programs; or b) Conservatives who will just pick whatever the most negative option the pollster offers.
    Noam Scheiber is absolutely correct that Kerry hasn’t settled on a strong, single message yet, but he has tons of time (true swing voters are a long, long way from decision time). But only liberals think that a “message” is the same as a detailed “plan.” Most Americans — especially those who decide elections — don’t, and don’t need the plan to receive the message. After all, to borrow from the recently deceased, “It’s Morning in America” might be affirmative and compelling, but it’s far from a plan and contains no details about anything. It’s just a message. That’s all Kerry needs, and frankly, he just hasn’t gotten enough exposure yet to transmit one. Just wait.

  13. Bob on

    I agree with other posts that it makes no sense for Kerry to lay out a detailed strategy on Iraq now.
    His Web site also offers proposals on energy independence, health care and education. And the environment. So the idea that he hasn’t put forward a compelling reason to vote for him sounds like something Fox News wants Democrats and progressives to say about their candidate.
    Let’s take a lesson from the Republicans; quick, tell me the Republican theory of governance in two words:
    Right! (Tax cuts)
    What is it in four words?
    Right again!! (Tax cuts and less government)
    Kerry doesn’t need to address every possible issue facing the nation. He’ll deal with Iraq at the appropriate time. Until then, having a plan to break our addition to oil and covering the tens of millions of uninsured people are more than enough reason to vote FOR him.
    Let’s stop saying Kerry has no affirmative message and help reinforce the mature, statesmanlike proposals he has made.

  14. Dave on

    Kerry has to have an exit strategy for Iraq?
    How ridiculous!
    Roosevelt and Ike didn’t have an exit strategy for Germany. The US still doesn’t have one (US soldiers continue to be stationed in Germany).

  15. Mimiru on

    S Robinson, I agree with you. I was posting TNR’s piece because I was annoyed and irritated with it. My position on this is generally for Kerry to keep quite until the convention then come out swinging. What worries me is that Bush is co-opting Kerry’s plans.
    Will it work if Kerry says something like “…Mr. President I am gratified that you took my suggestions on Iraq, now I offer another, step down this November.”
    And remember, TNR are the idiots that endoresd Lieberman.

  16. Lawrence on

    I agree that Kerry’s level of definition on Iraq is appropriate for now and seems to be working. Rather than 1996, think of 1952 and 1968. Both campaigns took place during a stalemated military situation, with plenty of “malaise”. Both challengers were notably vague about what they would do (“the extremely General Eisenhower” – his policy position: “I will go to Korea”. Nixon’s nebulous secret plan…) As long as the Kerry campaign seems to be working, he seems to be thinking strategically and running out the clock. Also, I agree with the comments that the whole Iraq situation is fluid, and that comments at any specific point might become irrelevant and embarrassing in five minutes.
    Maybe he should just say “I will go to Iraq”.

  17. dan on

    I think there are two separate questions, here:
    1) Does Kerry have a distinct viewpoint on Irag that is compelling to voters?
    2) When should Kerry make this distinction clear?
    I think it makes a lot of sense for Kerry for hold off until after the June 30 handover – such as it is a true handover – and, really, he probably ought to wait until the Convention to make it clear. At that point, he’ll have maximum attention to focus on his competence and differences with the Buchies.
    But none of the timing issues in #2 will mean much if he doesn’t get #1 right.

  18. bakho on

    I agree. It is way too early to get specific about Iraq. The convention will be soon enough to lay out a policy. A specific policy invites specific attacks. Until recently, the prevailing wisdom was Bush owned the security/defense issue. Bush could still win the security debate if a “miracle” occurs.
    The key is the economic message. Why will jobs and wages be better under Kerry than Bush? If Kerry wins that debate, he wins, even if security is at best a tie.
    I wish the press would give more coverage to policy.

  19. Mara on

    Take a deep breath – the election is still 5 months away. There’s good news in the pipeline (a bipartisan letter coming out on Wed. from high profile internationalists -Stansfield Turner and others, saying Bush has jeopardized American security with his policies; the release of Fahrenheit 9/11 later this month; the announcement of Kerry’s VP). There’s time to fill in the details in Kerry’s foreign policy. He’s more than just “not-Bush”.

  20. reignman on

    Yeah, he’s a “good closer.” I must admit that everything Kerry has done in this campaign was very calculated, and it worked out pretty well. I figured he was sunk after that debacle with his campaign staff. If Kerry took criticism that he was too boring/wordy and compressed his stuff speech, then he’s obviously paying attention to the tons and tons of articles exactly like this, and has some sort of strategy to deal with it, whether it is a good one or not.

  21. Van in CO on

    I think that Kerry is doing exactly the right thing at this point in his campaign. He is definitely using a subtle Sun Tzu approach. He is expending energy and dollars where it makes sense. Bush is committing suicide right now on all fronts.
    Why define an Iraq position before the convention when the situation on the ground is explosiove and unpredictable? Circumstances in Iraq could change such that any plan rolled out too soon could be rendered obsolete on the ground before the convention. That would be a disaster for Kerry. Bush is living the nightmare; it would be stupid to put a plan out too soon.
    Why spend excessively when headline after headline is trashing Bush for free?
    Timing is everything. Kerry has always timed his campaigns perfectly. The primaries being the latest example. Look at his record. He’s a winner and killer.

  22. Mencken on

    I disagree w/ w/ PhillyGuy’s simplistic read on voter psychology. in fact, this frustratingly myopic argument gets way too much play on dem websites.
    the election is not going to turn simply on whether voters want bush out. as ruy, non-weaselly pundits, and lotsa pollsters have pointed out, voter calculus involves a two step decision. first, voters assess the incumbent’s performance (the referendum on the incumbent). step two involves evaluating the challenger. if voters don’t feel the challenger offers a compelling alternative, then they’re likely to stick w/ the status quo.
    it’s only june and I agree w/ many of the other posters that kerry has time to distinguish himself from bush w/ popular solutions for woes both foreign and domestic. but ruy is right: kerry needs to have more to offer the electorate over the next 3 months. banking on voters rallying behind kerry just b/c he’s not bush is one of those strategies that, come Nov. 3, will have dems kicking themselves in the ass ’til ’08.

  23. Tim on

    S Robinson is wrong on this one I think. Does anyone out there think that this election looks anything like ’96?? I mean.. come on. There’s a war going on as we speak that’s dragging down the president’s popularity way below what Clinton’s was during Monica.. which was after the ’96 election, by the way. It’s totally different.
    I think that PhillyGuy has it right. Bush shows no sign of stopping his self-destruction. Why change this dynamic? There wasn’t even a “Reagan death bounce”.. but even the fact that we were talking about such a thing is pathetic.
    People like us, who have such a strong distaste for Bush and his administration.. will vote for Kerry no matter what. Kerry is doing the right thing by not taking the bait and offering a “detailed plan” on Iraq 6 months before the election.
    And people should go to his website to see exactly what his position on Iraq is before they comment otherwise…
    (thanks alan)

  24. David in Burbank on

    Or maybe Kerry is waiting for the convention so it can appear that his plans are a consensus of the various democratic groups he is trying to pull together. Also, the later he has real plans, the later Bush can attack those plans and since all Bush is good at now is attacking Kerry, waiting is better for Kerry. So long as his numbers don’t go to low, which they aren’t, he can easily wait till after the convetion to begin campaigning on a stronger platform. IMO.

  25. S Robinson on

    Kerry needs to excite loyal Democrats because he cannot win the election without them. The Republicans tried this strategy in ’96 and it didn’t work. They figured all the Clinton-haters would turn out in droves and vote for Dole. They didn’t realize that the party faithful wanted more than “I’m not Clinton” from their candidate. Dole’s inability to capture his own party’s base had him spending more time campaigning to Republicans than against Clinton.
    Throw in Nader as a potential frustration vote (a la Perot) and this election has many similarites to ’96. Still way too early to know how this one will turn out, though.

  26. Mimiru on

    Predictably, The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber’s take on VandeHei’s piece in the WaPo is, and I quote:
    “What I don’t understand is why Kerry needs to also excite loyal Democrats, who are already extremely excited by the prospect of beating Bush, regardless of who ends up doing it. VandeHei suggests that these voters could either fail to turnout for Kerry or end up voting for Nader. But, unlike swing voters, there’s no risk that these people will dislike Bush any less if the news out of Iraq or on the economy improves. For these people, Bush-hatred is just as reliable a motivator as Kerry-love, because their hatred is personal and ideological, not tied to outside events.
    Why does this matter? Because exciting both hard-core Democrats and swing voters is a nearly impossible task. If, on the other hand, Kerry can essentially take the votes of Bush-hating Democrats for granted, he can tailor his message almost entirely to swing voters, which would dramatically increase his chances of winning … ”
    Did I mention I hate these guys?

  27. Bilzim on

    I agree with PhillyGuy. As much as I would like to see a viable Iraq exit strategy I can wait. In my opinion Kerry has at least until the convention to make his position clear. And even then he’ll have to remain flexible enough to adapt to changing events on the ground.

  28. theCoach on

    Certainly, wait until after the handoff. My guess is that the majority of people have a perception of what that is going to be that is wildly different from the reality. Wait and see what the general reaction is before crafting a message.
    As for policy, get Rand Beers and Richard Clark, and Tony Zinni to consult and come up with their best plan. I would stress stablizing the situation, and a plan to start removing troops contingent on goals we set for the Iraqis.

  29. PhillyGuy on

    I actually LIKE the fact that Kerry hasn’t laid out a point-by-point detailed plan on what to do about Iraq. First, the situation is too volitile right now to announce a plan; whatever he says may be obsolete within a couple of months and then he’d just look foolish. Second, as we have seen, what little Kerry did say about Iraq Bush ended up implementing–thus rendering Kerry’s argument moot and taking away one of his weapons against Bush. Finally, it’s only June and the American public doesn’t expect Kerry to have a detailed plan on Iraq (especially because of my first point above). If by September there’s no Kerry plan for Iraq, THEN I’d be concerned. Right now, Kerry just needs to keep reassuring voters that he authentically looks and acts like a president, raise and spend all the money he can, write one hell of an acceptance speech, and hope that Bush continues his downward spiral in the polls. In November, this election will have very little to do with Kerry, anyway. If voters don’t want Bush (and it’s looking like they don’t), they’ll vote for Kerry. Period.

  30. Sara on

    I would agree that Kerry has to speak to where he is distinct from Bush on Iraq — but at the same time he should not tie himself and a potential administration down to specifics that may prove to be impossible or irrelevant.
    I always liked Wesley Clark’s construction — a plan for success — and Kerry might flesh that out a bit, what exactly would constitute success?
    First off — a secure environment where it is possible to rebuild an economy that functions. Kerry needs to be very critical of Bush’s efforts to create a secure environment — and stress the elements of any well structured security plan. He should point out that some NATO nations are willing to train security personnel — How do you use that willingness to plan a comprehensive program? How do you get the new government to buy into it? (assuming they are not all shot in the meantime).

  31. Debra on

    I think some of the confusion amongst the public is because the press has perpetrated this myth that Kerry and Bush have the same position on Iraq. and so Kerry is seen as me too in terms of Iraq. Indeed sometimes as with the reporting of Elizabeth Bumiller and Jodi Wilgoren they sneakily imply that Kerry is aping Bush.
    Really Bush has been dragged to support the position that Kerry articulated almost 18 months ago. But it does deprive Kerry of the benefit of authorship.
    Also since Bush is implementing this policy too late and too little it makes it seem like Kerry’s early advice are ineffetive.
    I have a partial diagnosis of the problem and at the moment no way to fix it.
    However I have always thought that asserting that we need a new president to regain credibilty can have a better payoff if the campaign keeps talking about the enormous incompetence of
    George Bush and his administration.


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