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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Rove Reverts To Type

Today’s NYT tells you most of what you need to know about the President’s re-election strategy going into the home stretch. Elisabeth Bumiller reports on Bush’s savage new stump speech, first unveiled in PA last week. As I noted when the speech first went up on the BC04 web page, the speech is almost entirely a negative attack on Kerry, and almost entirely based on distortions of the challenger’s record and unsupported name-calling. Bumiller notes that all the positive stuff about the administration’s record has been dumped out of the speech, apparently at the insistence of Karl Rove. (A separate AP story observes that neither Karl Rove nor Karen Hughes can take a breath without calling Kerry a “liberal”).
A front-page Pear and Toner piece in the Times on the new Medicare Rx drug benefit helps explain why Bush doesn’t want to go into the final presidential debate all puffed up about his domestic record. It’s clear by now that the discount drug card that was the first phase of the new initiative has been pretty much a bust so far; by and large seniors don’t like it, and don’t trust it. And remember: this was supposed to be the easy part of the initiative, the no-pain, first-course-dessert that would make everybody happy before the broccoli is served in 2006, when the full Medicare drug coverage, with its convoluted premium structure and ever-escalating costs, is implemented.
Rove, of course, would probably urge Bush to go negative even if he did have something positive to talk about. You may have heard about Josh Green’s profile of Rove in the latest (subscription only) Atlantic Monthly. Green makes a very astute observation about Rove’s history that may show why his faith in negative campaigning is so strong, and why it might be misplaced today. Most of Rove’s past campaigns were in two states–Texas and Alabama–that were at the time loaded with conservative, ticket-splitting Democrats likely to swing Republican in an ideologically polarized election. In that atmosphere, relentlessly attacking a Democratic candidate as a godless liberal simultaneously served the GOP’s base-moblization and swing voter strategies. But few battleground states today are anything like Texas and Alabama in the ’80s and ’90s. If Bush stays negative right on through to election day, he will (a) help Democrats with their own turnout strategy, and (b) quite possibly alienate swing voters who are already unhappy with the incumbent’s record.
The other possible flaw in Rove’s strategy is that he may be overestimating the willingness of both the news media and the public to swallow the poisonous distortions of Kerry’s record and agenda that his candidate is so shamelessly spewing into the air waves.
As revealed by Drudge, The Note’s Mark Halperin sent a memo to his ABC colleagues warning them not to simply report exchanges between the campaigns as morally equivalent, because: “The current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done.” Josh Marshall notes that Fox News is already trying to Ratherize Halperin (an absurd characterization given The Note’s unctuous treatment of BC04 throughout the campaign), and I’m sure other conservative media will follow. It will be interesting–not to mention important–to see if the rest of the political world will go along with the idea that the president’s flat-out lies about Kerry’s record should be treated as no more negative than Kerry’s efforts to point out what’s actually happening in Iraq.
I’ll say this: if Bush wins this thing by following Rove’s strategy, it will have a baleful effect on political campaigns here and around the world for years to come. So much for Bush’s interest in spreading the blessings of democracy.

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